With economic growth, we got access to more things that make our life easier, but with all that, we got hedonically adapted to ask for more, creating an ever-growing void inside us to fill.
In other words, we are seemingly never satisfied and are always after something.
How this came about? Why do we have this dissatisfaction and what is this something that is missing?
In the past necessities were luxuries only for them to become accessible and taken as a given. We wanted food and a warm house and we got it. Then we wanted a computer, a car, and able to go on holiday once in a while. We got that too.
We got used to this so much, to the extent that we think we can have anything we want, simply by paying for it. We can pay a nutritionist and eat healthily, we can pay a psychiatrist and be mentally strong and pay for the best restaurant and have the best meal.
You can indeed buy the information and the expertise with your purchasing power but you won’t acquire the habit formation or the essence of what you are looking for. In other words, they won’t do the work for you. You can have a nutritionist write you meals and still be unhealthy, go to therapy for years without much internal calmness, and not be able to enjoy your meal regardless of the location or how expensive it is. You might roll your eyes and say “duh I know that” but your actions might indicate otherwise.
Essentially, the heart of the problem is that this transactional relationship we have grown so accustomed to from acquiring material goods, infects other parts of our life making us believe that this is the defacto way we go get things, even if they are not material in nature.
One contributing factor to this is our need to outsource parts of our lives. We live in a busy world so we can’t help but outsource. Like you don’t need to pump your own water or you don’t have to know how a credit card works in order to swipe it. All these are such specialized domains that you are willing to outsource so you can focus on other things. That is the miracle of free markets intersecting human ingenuity. That is all fine.
However, besides outsourcing material things, we have started outsourcing other stuff as well, like opinions, emotional stability, confidence, and many more since they became much more dominant in our everyday life. So services arose from that need and most of us were able to afford them since these issues are an important factor for our overall happiness and must be resolved. We want to have confidence so the service of self-help books and speakers arose and crippled us. We want an opinion about everything so the service of opinion makers arose in the form of media that assigns beliefs.
But can you draw a clear line between what is better left for an expert to take care of and what should stay in your personal agency? How much do you outsource?
Having the sense that everything can be outsourced can make us complacent since someone else always has the answer so we don’t need to bother to figure it out ourselves. In many cases, like the material stuff, it is not a problem because it is very unlikely you will ever need to make your own fire or go hunt for your own food(unless you are preparing for the zombie apocalypse as a hobby). This is a problem though when it comes to non-material things since you have to build your mental toughness and you have to do the research and thinking to form your own opinion. All this kinda steals our personal agency and personal responsibility which is probably the most distinctive trait of a mentally strong individual.
Education is another thing we have outsourced. We think we can buy this too by acquiring degrees and that some initials appended to our name will make us more right than the average person. Of course, you can buy the specialization an institution offers, a foundation to build your craft, and a generic direction or career path, but you can’t buy the “finding meaning” in your work or how to break boundaries and think outside the box. There is no course for that.
You might be very talented and excel academically but still lack the enthusiasm of reading further than just what your uni professor recommends. You might be a diligent student and a stay-in-your-lane type of person but still lack a habit of tinkering. The one where you are trying to make and break stuff on your own, so you can make them your own, with all the wonderful nativity and overabundant confidence that comes with it while being a beginner. Such a mindset is rare and can’t be bought.
Yet you will see banner-sized advertisements showing people holding degrees portraying them as happy making the implicit promise to offer you all that. We want the finished product that is being sold to us and not education itself, just for the sake of knowledge. We want to jump straight to the finish line, to envision ourselves as successful, on a mission, happy individuals. So the sales pitch is: “hey you will be happy only if you do this. Study at our university”.
People think of education as something that they can finish — Isaac Asimov
Unfortunately, this gets worse. Various media outlets and influencers have taken notice of this and try to serve that need. And with the highly refined self-segregation the Internet enables, audience capture happens at a grand scale.
This only explains part of the disaffection though. The media wouldn’t have any power over us if we didn’t have the sense that something is missing.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow and his famous(legendary by now) hierarchy of needs might be able to give us a hind to realize some of the missing pieces.
Maslow defined that every person has a series of needs, roughly separated into five broad categories.
and the phycological:
- Self Actualization
These are the needs we need to take care of in sequential order in order to live a fulfilled life.
(This was also illustrated as a pyramid where each need rests on top of its preceding need in order to support the whole structure)
According to Maslow, we all start with material needs and then build up toward phycological ones. The last one, higher up in the “scale” is self-actualization and it is reached once all previous needs are met. Self-actualization means “living according to one’s full potential”, or “becoming who we really are”. Kinda nebulous and generic concept I agree.
In simple terms, it means to have no what-ifs in your life. To fulfill all your aspirations and see your talents and abilities manifest in your life while having the freedom to choose and change course on what you pursue.
Many say that our generation has a meaning crisis and claim that the reason for this is that our generation has been coddled so much that it has nothing to fight for. Although this partly makes sense, I think it is way too simplistic to portray it as such. Wanting material needs met is more straightforward than trying to acquire something you can’t even define. It is not to say that it is easy to have your material needs met, but at least it is a clear target to aim for. Going after what you can’t define is like shooting arrows in the dark and that is what we are dealing with nowadays.
Each generation fights a different beast and tries to conquer the challenges of its time. Once they become older though they get detached from new struggles, disregarding them as a product of a lost and confused generation.
This leads to each new generation being unappreciative of current living standards and what we have achieved as a species so far, and older generations being unsympathetic to current struggles.
(some version of a concept known as Tocqueville paradox)
In the sixties, it made sense to promote that having a washing machine and a car would make your life easier. It was quite a sensible sales pitch and a well-worth thing to strive for. We were still struggling with material needs after all. But that is no longer enough, primarily in the Western world.
Nowadays we don’t want just money and don’t get any lasting joy from material accumulation alone, but what is essential in our lives has been elevated.
We wanted food and a warm place to sleep(a physiological need). Then we wanted to live in a peaceful country without the turmoil that indicates an uncertain future(safety need). Then we wanted friends that understand us, a happy family, and a good future for our kids(need for belongingness). Then we wanted to be somebody, to be respected for our contributions to our community(need for esteem). Now we want purpose in our lives and find a reason to wake up in the morning(need for self-actualization).
You can see the aforementioned stages in billboard ads and throughout the culture, where the advertisement listens to the needs of the people and adjusts its marketing campaign accordingly depending on what needs the current generation fights for.
The image below showcases an ad that is utilizing a material need strategy(around the 1960s).
Whereas today, a more self-actualization centric strategy is used.
Nowadays many companies sell social justice, inclusion, and the such, becoming their main hook and marketing strategy, not because they truly believe in that cause but because they know you believe in that cause. You have the demand, they have the supply.
The ultimate thing for sale is the need we have to feel like a good human that is just and is fighting for a noble cause. Self-actualization remember?
We have become the type of audience who need problems so we have the sense we have something important to fight for. That is why when a social issue breaks we start seeing it more often in the newspaper. The news media is trying to sort out the supply by increasing the demand. And of course, you can and should fight for a good cause when you see it, but more often than not the lines between the real and the fake ones is blurry. At least in the current climate. The instances where you use the media and not the other way around are not as easily distinguishable.
Stances in social issues can be bought as well, despite being antithetical to each other. You might be a fan of an anti-systemic band with lyrics against the establishment and the next day hop online to buy the tenth pair of shoes from a well-known brand you don’t really need, serving the “establishment” right there. Your moral stance got covered feeling virtuous, and your consumer instinct was appeased.
You might be against nuclear energy but pro reducing carbon emissions. Or be pro empowering developing countries so they can lift themselves out of poverty, but against the usage of fossil fuels by those very countries to get there. Such statements are a mashup of our needs. Being reasonably aligned with each other is of secondary importance.
As humans, we are not configured for truth but for what is good for survival, and having our needs met is survival, but adjusted in the modern age.
So we end up in the following situation. We want something that is not material but we apply a transactional strategy to attain it resulting in contradicting behavior and a confused mind.
The more the demand, the more a service has to find a way to serve consumer needs, in mass. And the more something has to fit into this transactional framework, the more sterile it becomes, losing all its charm and in many occasions its substance. This results in getting blind to it, even if it is in plain sight, all due to a misrepresented overexposure by the entities that have self-anointed themselves as responsible to deliver it.
If you see Big Bang Theory or Friends, for example, you will notice a very predictable, dumbed-down formula on how dialog leads to laughter. You are actually treating your audience like idiots, serving them easy-to-catch jokes barely one level deep in order for the characters to feel relatable to the average person. It has to become so watered down to please everyone. The barrier to entry, to get the joke is so low it gets diluted all in the service of selling you the feeling of belonging.
This comes in stark contrast with raw comedy where if done right, you are balancing on the bleeding edge of unpredictability. Offensive jokes might lead nowhere or might reveal a nugget of truth you could never say in a casual environment. The comedian takes chances on material that might bomb, building tension and arriving at a punchline in unpredictable ways. In a way, you don’t feel safe in such a setting but that is exactly the proper one for your mind to think outside of the fixed boxes you are so used to from everyday coddling.
(Today’s comedy in some aspects has become a lot staler as well by trying to be more woke or sensitive about people’s feelings where it leads to no comedy actually)
Everything that is spoon-fed to you will lose its meaning, including meaning itself.
The “finding meaning” sounds and feels fake nowadays due to advertisers misusing it so much and TV shows misrepresenting it so cheaply. We dismiss it altogether as mere theory although it is the thing we are really looking for the most. Like a romantic comedy that was been squeezed till its last drop that you can’t relate one bit to it anymore, no matter how genuine the initial sentiment was ages ago.
The wall that protects you, will one day imprison you, and the repeated messages you allowed yourself to be exposed to will one day become shackles or blinders.
So do I advocate living like a monk(wait this too is being sold as a product by gurus) or live a secluded life? No, none of the above. Just realizing that there are things you can’t buy, is enough. To realize that you have to do the work and ignore all the noise thrown your way.
You can march in the streets shouting, glue yourself to the asphalt and throw paint in buildings but that won’t make you a good person. And it won’t change the world. You might feel good for an instant but that will wear off over time like a drunk, leaving only the bad parts — you being confused and resentful for why things don’t change and why people are so bad.
You can’t buy yourself goodness in any way by simply joining a collective or being part of a political group. These are cover-ups, disguised services that promise to do the work for you. Instead, you have to dig deep into all the unexplored corners of your mind yourself and face your ugly parts head-on. If you avoid this you will always try to find a way to fill that unexplained void you are feeling with a product or activism of some sort. And it won’t last.
Such a stance towards life hinders our ability to make the most revolutionary realization of all; that the battle is taking place within us.
The fight is internal and eternal.
There is a war going on. The battlefield is in the mind and the prize is the soul. — Prince