Natural Life Magazine

Avoiding Consumerism at Christmas:
Overworked, Overspent, and
Rethinking What’s Really Important

by Wendy Priesnitz

Avoiding Consumerism at ChristmasAs we enter what is traditionally the year’s most concentrated shopping season – and, for many, its most stressful – increasing numbers of North Americans are re-evaluating their approach to money – both how they make it and how they spend it (or not). The implications for green living, the environment and our families are huge.

According to a poll released by the Center for a New American Dream, Americans are overworked, overspent and rethinking the American dream. At a time when Americans are divided politically, they seem to agree on one thing: most people aren’t focused on what really matters. More than eight out of ten survey respondents believe that society’s priorities are “out of whack” and 93 percent agree that people are too focused on working and making money and not enough on family and community. Almost as many (more than eight in ten) say they would be more satisfied with life if they just had less stress.

Although they may not think of themselves as having pursued the “American dream”, people in other developed countries are also rethinking their attitudes towards money along with their habits of consumption. In his book Better Happy Than Rich (Penguin Books, 2000), Michael Adams, President of Toronto-based Environics Research Group, says that over the past few decades Canadians’ social understanding of currency has been evolving along with our values. Under the traditional model, he writes, power was the currency of choice, then money became the central currency; increasingly, as a post-modern people, “the ability to experience lives of energy and intensity in a more ethical world” has become the most desirable end in our society. This has led to a move for less conspicuous consumption and a desire to put our money where our consciences are as we try to do business with humane and ethical organizations. It is also the reason behind the increase in the number of Canadians investing ethically.

The picture is the same in Australia. A 2003 study by the Australia Institute found that 23 percent of Australians aged 30 to 59 had downshifted in the prior decade, changing careers, cutting back work hours or taking early retirement.

Similarly, the New American Dream survey illustrates the changes that Americans have made in the past five years, which have resulted in making and spending less money. Much of the change has come since September 11, 2001, with 40 percent of Americans having made conscious decisions to buy less. The primary reasons given for voluntarily reducing work and income are a desire for a less stressful and more balanced life and a desire for more time. This is a steep increase in the number of self-proclaimed “down-shifters” compared to earlier polls.

That increase is confirmed by researchers Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, who coined the term “cultural creatives” for people who have made this shift in their values and way of life. They say that in the 1960s less than five percent of the population was making these changes, whereas now cultural creatives make up a quarter of the population.

In the New American Dream survey, concerns over two related trends stand out: excessive consumerism coupled with economic insecurity. Eighty-eight percent believe that our society is too materialistic with four of five saying that society is too focused on shopping and spending. At the same time, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) report that the American dream is harder to achieve than it was even ten years ago and less than half believe they will ever achieve it.

But more importantly, people want to redefine what the dream means. Only three percent say that the phrase “more is better” describes the American dream while 86 percent say that getting “more of what matters in life” is a better description.

What to do about the problem aside from stepping out of the rat race? “[We] are mis-educated to be consumers and to value wealth more than time...We’re a hyped up, stressed, tired and addiction-prone people. The two most radical things we can do...are slow down and talk to people,” says Mary Pipher, noted author and family therapist.

It’s ironically remarkable that, at a time when many people are hard-pressed financially and struggling to make ends meet, so many are trying to reduce their workload, despite the economic obstacles. More than half of survey respondents say they would be willing to give up one day’s pay per week in exchange for one day off per week in order to spend more time with family and friends.

Six Steps to Help You Simplify Your Life

1. Make a List of Five Things Most Important to You
We can’t achieve our goals if we don’t occasionally take stock of what they are. Do you dream of writing a novel or traveling abroad? Do you wish you had more time for your family, your faith or your hobby? The simple act of reflection can create unexpected insights and opportunities toward getting what matters most.

2. Tune Out, Tune In
Just because you have a cell phone and a computer doesn’t mean you need to have them on all the time. Even short breaks from the demands of your gadgets can shift your perspective dramatically. Take a walk, meditate, read or reflect on your day just before you fall asleep.

3. Spend Time, Not Money
Anyone can pick out an expensive present from a catalog. But a humble phone call, picnic, evening of board games or other fun activity will create memories that last longer than a credit card purchase (and won’t come back to haunt you with compounded finance charges).

4. Think Outside the Cubicle
Does your 9-to-way-past-5 routine dominate your life? Regain some boundaries. For starters, resist the urge to take work home. Take your lunch breaks and make an effort to leave on time. Some employers may consider alternate arrangements, such as extra vacation time, flex time or telecommuting arrangements, especially if they can’t afford to give raises. It can’t hurt to ask.

5. Count Your Blessings
As consumers we may feel inadequate sometimes for not having the coolest, newest version of every product on the shelf. We forget that a billion people on our planet live on a dollar a day or less. Our lives are materially richer beyond the imagining of our ancestors – and even our grandparents. Notice your many blessings and remember to count and enjoy them.

6. Join with Others
Most of us are constantly bombarded with messages encouraging us to buy more than we need. Find some like-minded friends who share your values and intention to chart a new lifestyle. Start a study group, book group or just a monthly potluck and take some steps together. Start a simplicity circle, a voluntary simplicity study group or just a monthly “fun” night for sharing things like star-gazing, bread making or story telling.

Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's co-founder and editor. She is a journalist with over 40 years of experience, and the author of 13 books.


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