In the Guardian today Madeleine Bunting writes:
[US psychologist Tim Kasser] argues that our hyperconsumerism is a response to insecurity, a maladaptive type of coping mechanism. Over the past few decades, the sources of insecurity have multiplied: in addition to the manipulation long practised by advertising, there are new sources of insecurity in highly competitive market economies, ranging from identity (who am I and where do I belong?) to basics (who will look after me in my old age?). This relationship between materialism and insecurity helps explain why countries as diverse as the US and China are deeply materialistic; they are places of endemic insecurity.My mother, being the youngest of six children, the oldest three born in the region of Kiev, was proud to be one of the few children in her class to wear shoes to school, having all those older brothers and sisters in work bringing wages into the household. Later in life she would become a world-class shopper. It is my observation that those who have known poverty take pleasure in luxury.
The brilliance of this economic system built on insecurity is that it is self-reinforcing. The more insecure you are, the more materialistic; the more materialistic, the more insecure. As Kasser has shown, materialistic values (which are on the increase among teenagers on both sides of the Atlantic) make you more anxious, more vulnerable to depression and less cooperative. Studies show that people know what the real sources of lasting human fulfilment are - good relationships, self-acceptance, community feeling - but they face a formidable alliance of political and economic interests that have a vested interest in distracting them from that insight to ensure they work longer hours and spend more money.
Shopping may well fill the God-shaped hole in our lives, but it may also be that some of us have a highly developed aesthetic, and just like nice things.
One thing the merry-making Madeleine fails to reflect on is what her own contribution is to getting people to feel insecure. I mean, when did you last read a column by her that cheered you up? Hmmm... come to think of it, I suppose some of them might have, unintentionally.
Anyway, remember: don't hang yourself in the stairwell; you can always buy something.