Our Desires are Being Manipulated


I often ask myself an important question, “Why aren’t more people attracted to a minimalist life?” Given all the benefits of owning just what we need, why would anyone choose to own a whole bunch of stuff they don’t need?

I don’t ask the question with an air of superiority, pride, or morality. For me, it’s a personal question I continue to wrestle with.

I didn’t discover minimalism until my mid-thirties. While living on a lower middle-class income, I had still managed to acquire rooms full of stuff that wasn’t needed. This became abundantly clear when my neighbor introduced me to minimalism and my family of four began to minimize the possessions in our home.

Our first van-load of stuff to Goodwill felt amazing. The second van-load of clutter to the Salvation Army felt wonderful. So did the third.

But while dropping off a fourth van-load of things I didn’t need at our local donation center, I started to ask myself some serious questions, starting with, “Why in the world did I have four van-loads of things in my house that I didn’t need? Why did I buy all this?”

Why do we buy stuff we don’t need in the first place?

The more I dove into my heart and soul searching for an answer to this question, the less I enjoyed what I found… Selfishness, greed, jealousy, desire to impress, fear (just to name a few) became apparent to me as unhealthy motivations that compelled me to acquire and consume.

Innate human desires, I realize now, each of us must work to recognize and overcome. They are more prevalent in our lives than we realize (or like to admit).

But we are not entirely to blame. The external world conspires against us.

In one of the most well-known descriptions of modern society’s fixation on consumption, Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers, back in 1927, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “We must shift America from a needs, to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

And thus began a new era in advertising—one that would seek to manipulate the masses not by providing goods required for life or happiness, but by manipulating their desires.

Everything from cars and clothes to cigarettes and appliances became status symbols. And 100 years later, the manipulation continues.

During last night’s Superbowl, as just one example, we were told a fashion app could make us feel rich, a software company could turn us into a rockstar, a vehicle purchase could save the environment, and a can of potato chips could connect us with others.

In each and every case, we are being “trained to desire more than we need” because it makes them money.

My grandfather was born in 1921 and passed away in December 2020 at the age of 99. He was six years old when business leaders began intentionally shifting their strategy.

But I’m 48, born in 1974—which means I’ve lived my entire life under this manipulation! And likely, you have as well.

We’ve never known anything different than a world where business leaders, Wall Street tycoons, politicians, (and now tech giants) control the airwaves and the culture we live in.

We’ve come to expect that this way of life is normal and how life is supposed to be lived.

This is just what life is… desiring and buying more than we need… right?

Like a fish who doesn’t notice the water surrounding them, we don’t even notice the level of corporate manipulation and its impact around us. It’s cooked into the soup we’re all swimming in.

But make no mistake. We are being deceived. We are being sold promises that retailers and manufacturers can never deliver on. Their external manipulation appeals to our internal insecurity and compels us to pursue, purchase, and accumulate more than we need.

So how do we overcome this manipulation?

I wish this was an easy answer, but I have found that not to be the case.

Overcoming manipulation takes constant vigilance. But here are some important steps we can take to accomplish that:

1. Recognize there are selfish motivations around us.

Not every company and not every advertisement is out for our good. Some are just there for profit.

2. Work to see the manipulation.

The emphasis in advertising has moved away from fact-based proclamations to creating associations in the mind of the viewer.

Most advertisements appeal to our subconscious desires (status, sex, prestige, happiness, appearance, self-esteem, identity, or reputation) and fears (loneliness, security, weaknesses, uncertainty). Be aware of their strategy so you will not be fooled by it.

3. Remember that happiness cannot be purchased.

Beware of destination addiction—the belief that happiness will be realized in your next purchase. The dopamine rush from a new purchase is immediately fleeting. Happiness is a decision available to all of us… it is not for sale on Amazon.

4. Respect the finite nature of our lives.

All of life is finite—our time, our money, our energy. Because of this, learning where to place our attention and affection is incredibly important.

5. Buy things for their usefulness, not their status.

Purchase items for their ability to meet your needs, not their ability to impress your neighbor.

Apply this principle everywhere—your house, your car and your clothes are all great places to start. You don’t have to live like everyone else. In fact, you’ll probably be happier if you don’t.

6. Remind ourselves there are greater pursuits in life.

There are always greater things we can do with our money than buy stuff we don’t need. We can help others, solve problems, and make a difference in the world. Our money is only as valuable as what we choose to spend it on. Spend it wisely.

7. Ground our minds.

For me, this is one of the reasons meditation and devotion are so important in my life. Being intentional about the purpose of life helps overcome the manipulation of the world around us. Maybe that is one of the reasons it is so popular in both faith-based worldviews and nonfaith-based worldviews.

The only exit from the influence of marketers and a consumerist society is to actually exit—to decide that enough is enough and the relentless pursuit of possessions will never lead to an intentional life. The first step is to be intentional in overcoming it.

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