Many modern societies are experiencing a surfeit of material possessions. People have ever-increasing material possessions, ever more choices and amounts of food, ever more world travel, and instant world-wide communications. Indeed, they have everexpanding horizons on all sides. They are, by any account, more materially wealthy than at any other time in history.
However, this sense of plenty has fundamentally changed everything. It is not only the way in which people relate to the world of luxury goods, but also the way they relate to other people, institutions and society in general. But having passed through this experience of material abundance, many people in these societies are now realising this has not necessarily led them to real satisfaction in life.
There is greed, excess and materialism which they believe is driving society today and have jeopardized the personal, social and spiritual relationships that are crucial to wellbeing. One critical consequence of material excess and consumerism has been the effect on moral and ethical values. Values play a key role in defining relationships and meaning related to what is right and good.
In the past, societies tended to reinforce values that emphasise collectivism, co-operation, social obligations and selfrestraint and discouraged those that promote self-indulgence and narrow individualism. However, with more economic choices governing people’s lives, moral considerations been marginalised. Money itself has become the dominant value and promotes a view of the self as individualistic and independent of social influences.
Modern societies are observing continuous tension. While material abundance and comforts of modern living offer an excess of choice and freedom, there is growing apprehension about emotional harshness and spiritual desiccation. Ecological movements have also highlighted the need for a limit to runaway consumption and production of waste. It is well established that the resources we had for long considered limitless and free, such as clean air and water, are in fact not unlimited. Unfortunately, most consumption today is located within vices, little within virtues.
Individuals have made themselves the centre of their moral universe and assess everything including personal relationships in terms of ‘what is in it for me’. Personal wants are never satiated. Eat more, buy more, spend more, shop more…one doesn’t seem to know where to stop or ‘how much is too much’. As Durkheim observed in his seminal sociological study of suicide, “If more suicides occur today than formerly, this is not because, to maintain ourselves, we have to make more painful efforts, nor that our legitimate needs are less satisfied, but because we no longer know the limits of legitimate needs nor perceive the direction of our efforts”.
Since the mid-1960s in several developed countries, there has been a rising tide of clinical depression and a decline in mutual trust and social bonds. Depression is directly tied to the cultural emphasis on individualism which places the individual, rather than the community or group, at the centre of values, norms and beliefs. It is a vision of life as an atomistic journey in which fulfillment is tied to material acquisitions.
When a person fails in his pursuits, there is no built-in support system to cushion the fall. There is only sadness, isolation and depression. Several research studies indicate that after a minimal level, material abundance is irrelevant to one’s sense of wellbeing. According to one study on youth of Sweden titled ‘Young People Today – Health and Vulnerabilities’ published by the Swedish National Board for Youth Affairs, 32 per cent of girls said they regularly face problems such as anxiety, worry and angst compared to 14 per cent boys who said so.
Another study by the same agency revealed that 51 per cent of girls felt stressed several days a week or every day in the previous six months compared to 29 per cent of boys who were similarly stressed. Citing expert studies, USA Today reported on 22 October 2016 that depression is at an all-time high among American college students. Prof. Jean M. Twenge, the author of ‘Generation Me-Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled –and More Miserable than Ever Before’ has also shown that Americans are more depressed today than they have been in decades.
Sixteen million American adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2012 while 30 per cent of students reported feeling depressed. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youths aged 15-34 in the USA. These high rates of depression and related problems have been recorded in the midst of the highest availability of luxury consumer goods ever experienced in human history.
Also, a consensus is emerging that we cannot maintain the rate of depletion of natural resources associated with such a surfeit of luxury consumption. Such luxury consumption is depleting the natural resources of our once bountiful planet. Instead of abundance of consumption leading to any durable satisfaction it is leading to deep sense of insecurity, and fear of scarcity which pushes us to grab as much as possible of the available resources.
There is value in living a simple life, but a simple life is often misunderstood as renunciation. Simplicity is not necessarily the renunciation of material goods as much as it is to possess only those material goods that nurture your being. Scarcity is not, in fact, the opposite of abundance. The actual opposite of abundance is sufficiency. There is freedom when we lose our need for abundance and live in sufficiency.
For this there is a need to have clarity about our goals and values. If we don’t know why we are earning and spending money, then we cannot say when if ever we will have sufficiency. A balanced life is a fulfilling life. After we satisfy our needs, we can put greater effort towards the pursuit of other goals such as meaningful and durable social relationships and the yearning for higher truths of life.
(The writers are, respectively, a freelance writer and researcher and a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.)