We all know that we buy too much stuff. Many of us who eschew materialism in principle still buy things we don’t really need. We want to be impervious to all the advertisements that bombard our daily lives (pop up ads having more than replaced the TV commercials we either mute or pass up by fast forwarding.) Yet in spite of our best intentions, we often relent. Why?
There is no one simple answer, of course. Popular conversations on the topic include wanting to fit in, natural competition with our peers, and the sheer overwhelming variety of things available to us versus previous generations. It is natural to want to have status and respect in any society. Unfortunately for ours, power, money and all the things they can buy, are how we measure our success.
At a conscious level, we know we are being manipulated into wanting things we don’t need. And the things we buy are increasingly designed not to last—from computers to appliances—even basic clothing because it is made so cheaply. We get that these products are not supposed to last so that we have to buy a replacement. That’s what keeps the economy moving and the billionaires rich.
But after reading a recently published book by Todd McGowan called Capitalism and Desire: The Psychic Cost of Free Markets, I was overwhelmed by his psychological insight into the sophisticated leveraging of individual’s inner experience of loss into consistent buying of merchandise. Again, we are all familiar with the immediate gratification of buying some new shiny object, and how fleeting that gratification can be. And my patients frequently reference that they suddenly are seized by the urge to go shopping when they are feeling bad. And I have done this myself, of course. But now if I feel like buying something I ask myself if this is something I really need. If not, I reflect on what I am feeling emotionally.
What I didn’t fully appreciate, even as a psychoanalyst, is how we are driven to both the gratification of purchasing and the inevitable disappointment and sense of loss that follows. Dr. McGowan’s thesis is a bit complicated, but here is a basic summary of what he says.
First, we all have within us a basic sense of loss. Second, we seek relief from this intrapsychic pain by making purchases because we live in a materialistic society. Third, we inevitably become disappointed or inured to our acquisitions and feel our loss once again. Here’s the most interesting part. McGowan says that returning to the experience of loss is an integral part of the cycle of buying. Not just because it naturally leads to more buying, but because unconsciously we know our sense of loss exists and we need to experience it as part of maintaining our core sense of self.
McGowan says companies like Apple want us to be disappointed so that we will own that feeling and then be driven to purchase the new iPhone which is barely distinguishable from the one we own already. He says if we felt truly satisfied with our iPhone, or car or refrigerator, we would stop buying and the companies would go out of business. They highlight what we don’t have to tap into our experience of loss and then capitalize on it. Hence, the commodification of loss. (Funeral homes have been doing this for decades, but who knew it was occurring constantly in this disguised micro-form?)
Much to my delight, as a psychoanalyst, McGowan says self-awareness is key to minimizing our participation in this cycle but notes that it cannot be achieved on one’s own. He says we cannot do it alone because our motivations are unconscious. We essentially just chase our own tails. He speaks of the “public space” offered by psychoanalysis. The meaning of public space is that there is a knowledgeable witness to our experience who can guide us through it and help us be aware of our true motivations and work through our sense of loss. As Freud said, the goal is to make the unconscious, conscious. And no one can do it all on their own.