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Are Experiences the New Conspicuous Consumption?

Thoreau once wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." Perhaps a statement like that was a little more controversial in the haze of conspicuous consumption that constituted the '80s and '90s, but over the past 20 years, people seem to have begun internalizing the message that less is more (consider the increased interest in minimalism and all things Marie Kondo, for instance). Or at least, we've stopped glorifying materialism and gotten better at hiding it, which might be a little closer to the truth.


In any case, I've noticed a trend over the past few years where people are quick to decry bald-faced materialism and insist upon a pivot to experiences instead. "Oh no, I don't waste my money on useless junk that'll end up in the landfill" they'll tell you proudly. "I invest in experiences." It's interesting to me that this change is often presented as a morally upstanding one, rather than what it really is: an abdication of responsibility, and ultimately, a cop-out. Instead of up-sizing your house and car, keeping up with the Joneses is now carried out through international travel to the most exotic locations, or eating the rarest kind of sushi. The endless search for status, novelty, and new fetishes to accumulate hasn't abated, only rebranded.


On an environmental level, this is a disaster. We know that flying is one of the highest-impact activities you can partake in in terms of its carbon footprint. The same applies to cruises, driving, and most other forms of travel that people are so keen to engage in (often multiple times per year). It would arguably be better to buy a new TV every year and revert to "old school" materialism than to continue on with this "experiences rather than things" philosophy as some kind of stand-in for environmental consciousness. The fact is that conspicuous consumption can never be ecologically just (or justified), whether it's in the form of buying an object or an experience. The experience's ecological footprint is simply better hidden, and is likely even more damaging to the biosphere.


But the main consideration I want to look at today is the psychological impact of this kind of philosophy, of over-consumption being rebranded as living a good, moral, or "full life." In a capitalist system, where everything centres around production and consumption, it's no surprise that experiences have become packaged and commodified for profit. Under such a system, it then becomes a moral good, an end in itself, to consume, to devour experiences in a gluttonous way, neither savouring nor cherishing them, but simply ensuring we've accumulated enough of them to keep up with everyone else.


But how much is enough? Consumerism is like scratching a rash: we scratch, the itch gets itchier, so we scratch harder, and on and on, making everything worse. To use a slightly different metaphor, we end up resembling a snake eating our own tail: always hungry, never satisfied, and destroying ourselves in the process.


So, what's the solution here? Certainly, experience is where life happens, where we grow and we learn, and humans do seem to need a certain amount of novelty to feel happy and engaged in the world. In this sense, the philosophy of "experiences over things" has it right: we're at our best when we're free to create, to explore, and to have direct, unmediated, and spontaneous experiences of reality, all of which can bring a great deal of satisfaction and joy. Although spontaneity can sometimes be tough to come by in these days of timed-entry tickets and strict work schedules, there's still a lot of authentic experience out there waiting for us, especially when it comes to nature and culture. Perhaps the question isn't so much what we're engaging in, but why and how.


Are we going to that concert because the music brings us alive and makes us feel present and connected to our fellow humans? Or do we just feel pressure to be living an Instagram-worthy life? Do we really like going to the gym five nights a week? Or are we so uncomfortable being left alone with our thoughts and feelings that we race to fill every spare minute of our calendar with frenzied activity to avoid facing our pain? Are we flitting from experience to experience like a bee from flower to flower? Or are we taking the time to go deep, to savour, to slow down and feel true gratitude for the privilege of being able to witness that beautiful piece of art, or that stunning waterfall?


I think we'd all be wise to consider that satisfaction comes from the quality of our consciousness, and not the amount (or "exoticness") of experiences we consume. In our rush to have experiences, it seems we've forgotten to actually experience them. We don't need to keep upping the ante, going for bigger and better. Perhaps we can all learn to go deeper instead, to truly connect, in the moment, with what we're experiencing, and who we're experiencing it with. Don't consume for the sake of consumption, or to avoid your discomfort. Partake in this world to cherish it, to merge with it, to appreciate how incredible it is that you're here at all. Let experiences become your vehicle to see the sacred all around you (from a night at the movies to doing the dishes). It's been waiting for you patiently all along. In other words: don't run from, be drawn toward.

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