by Zoe Weil

During a 2008 Bioneers conference, Annie Leonard made the comment, “We’re trashing the planet, and we’re trashing each other, and we’re not even having fun.”

That may sound like a flip statement, but it’s backed up with statistics from polls that reveal that happiness has been on the decline in the U.S. for decades.

Our contentment as a nation was highest during the 1950s, and it has been decreasing ever since. The irony is that, on average, we have way bigger houses, way more stuff, way more entertainment options, and way more consumer choices. But, as Annie says, we’re not having fun.

Given this reality, shouldn’t it be easy to create change, to stop trashing the planet and each other?

Since the consequences of our current actions are frightening, depressing, and potentially irrevocable, and we’re not even having fun, doesn’t it seem logical that we’d abandon a materialist, resource-depleting, toxin-producing culture for a community-, relationship- and service-centered society?

But it has not been easy to shift our trajectory toward simpler, healthier, more restorative living, and the reasons could be the subject of many a dissertation.

Since this is a blog post, I’ll share just a few potential reasons:

  • We’ve come to believe (through advertising, media, and social engineering and influence) that a bigger house, more stuff, the newest electronics, etc., will be fun — so fun that it will increase our happiness; thus, we act upon our (generally false) beliefs that stuff will make us happy, and we buy more stuff.
  • We’re collectors and hoarders by nature; just like a bower bird collects shiny objects, so do we — not because of wise examination of the costs and benefits, but from innate desire, and perhaps, instinct.
  • We’re competitive; seeing others with more sparks our desire and willingness to strive for more ourselves.
  • Our capitalist system is designed both to grow production and generate desires through persuasion, and we, being impressionable and malleable, are easily swayed, despite our best interests.
  • Transforming our current system, which has brought us tremendous benefits, takes hard work and is threatening.
  • We have trouble seeing beyond the here and now, so we don’t associate our newest gadget with exploitation of other people, animals, or the planet; we are more ignorant than uncaring or unwise.
  • Bucking the mainstream is personally difficult and unsettling; it’s easier to maintain the status quo.
  • Growing dissatisfaction and unhappiness are incremental; we simply don’t notice that our passion for more stuff is related to suffering and destruction, let alone our personal discontent.

So how to we address these factors? Here are a few ideas:

  • Change corporate charters and revise capitalism so that we make it illegal for corporations to harm, oppress, and destroy others in the production and disposal of products.
  • Require that products print the true costs of production and disposal on labels, the same way we require that food labels include ingredients.
  • Stop subsidizing with tax dollars the pollution caused by production and disposal of our products and the destruction of natural resources involved in this system.
  • Outlaw the advertising of all products and foods which cause ill health. Cigarette and hard alcohol TV advertising were made illegal; the same needs to happen for fast food and junk food, “boutique” pharmaceuticals, etc.
  • Bring humane education to all levels of schooling and society so that, in age-appropriate and relevant ways, everyone learns about the true price of the products in our midst, is able to separate fact from opinion and to think critically and creatively, and can analyze the media messages that seek to influence them.
  • Begin a Gross Domestic Happiness Index in every country (currently, Bhutan has such an index), making it a national priority to increase this index.
  • Replace the GDP (gross domestic product) with the GPI (genuine progress indicator), so that the costs of production are subtracted, revealing a true indicator of “progress.”

The list above includes societal changes that will address materialism at its source, but there are also choices we can make in our individual lives to take more control of our personal happiness and model non-materialistic fun. Here are some ideas:

  • Turn off your TV, and gather with friends and family for conversation, to play games, make music, help with projects, build gardens, and share meals.
  • Volunteer and get active with organizations that help individuals and the environment, as well as create systemic change.
  • Choose to shop less; buy what you need and truly want, rather than fill time with shopping.
  • Spend time outdoors in natural settings, and allow your reverence and appreciation for the Earth to grow; this will undermine materialistic messages while bringing joy and restoring your commitment to make a difference.
  • Note the fun you’re having when you make these changes.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on solutions, too. Please share your ideas in the comments.