Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

For weeks leading up to Black Friday, we’re inundated with advertisements offering deals that many of us just can’t pass up. Fifty percent off this, 35 percent off that, buy one of these, get one of those, etc. In 2018 alone, during a 24-hour period on Black Friday, Americans spent a massive $5 billion.

But Black Friday is just an extreme representation of the culture of consumerism most of us live within. Consumerism — a buzzword that we should deconstruct — is the idea that we inherently want more stuff; we can’t settle with enough stuff. And so we buy. And we buy a lot — more Ikea furniture, more new clothes despite our already full closets, more coffee to go.

Our consumer culture has massive ecological and human consequences. When we order that new iPad online, for example, the line of production is long and inherently destructive. To start, the resources that were used to make the iPad had to be extracted from the Earth. They were then transported to a factory (where people are likely paid minimally in suboptimal working conditions to put it together). It was then packaged in plastic and cardboard that would soon be thrown away. And finally, it was shipped to our doorsteps by people driving through the night, leaving a trail of carbon emissions the whole way. Our behavior of buying is not sustainable on our finite Planet.

So despite our increasing awareness with the massive problems with what we’re doing, why do we continue to buy so much? There are a number of reasons that generally explain why people buy things:

  1. To feel better
  2. To find social connection
  3. Self-actualization

All three promise a better life. Here’s why none of them really make our lives any better.

Retail therapy isn’t therapy at all

Often when we buy stuff, endorphins and dopamine are released in our brains, and that release makes us feel happier. The problem is that the hormones only provide a temporary high — much like drugs and alcohol. Impulsively buying doesn’t address the root cause of our unhappiness, and soon after the dopamine and endorphins dissipate, we will return to the same unhappy place we found ourselves in shortly before.

Counterfeit connection

It’s often easy to find connection in areas that don’t say anything about who we are. For example, we love to bond with fellow Jeep owners or fellow Birkenstock wearers over the common ownership. I’ve seen people with Birkenstock stickers on their laptops, publicly advertising their shoe choice like it’s a part of their identity. What do our Birkenstocks say about our personalities, our deepest fears, or about our senses of humor? Connecting over shared material possession is not connection at all, and it’s unsustainable.

Removing the materialist mask 

Many material possessions allure us because they provide the illusion that our future selves can be improved through purchasing. We allow stuff to define our being, thinking that the clothes we wear and the cars we drive are parts of us — representations of our identities. With each new purchase, a new version of our future self is envisioned — one that by comparison highlights all of the inadequacies of our current reality. The achievement of our ideal future is infinitely deferred, and when we’re constantly living in the future, we’re not really living at all. We seem to wear our material possessions like masks; we use our stuff as a crutch when we can’t rely on raw emotion or experience to define our being. But it’s all a choice, and in the same way we choose to buy stuff, we can choose an identity based on our humanity.

Minimalism as our guiding light

“Minimalism” is another buzzword that people seem to be saying these days. People tend to think that minimalism deals with having fewer material possessions cluttering our lives — emptier closets, clearer countertops, and purses and wallets that only contain the necessities. But the minimalist lifestyle is more about awareness of the purpose behind our possessions and our behavior. Within our culture of consumerism, most of our energy and action revolves around stuff — we’re constantly buying things, and when we’re not, we’re working so that we can. Often it’s a subconscious mindset, and that’s exactly what minimalism aims to derail.

People overwhelmingly report that their relationships — which include family, friends, lovers, and the barista that regularly makes your coffee — are the most important part of their lives. But we spend so much of our time working or interacting with material possession rather than other humans. It seems that for many of us there is a dissonance between what we say we value and what we spend our time doing.

The solution to this consumerist curse is awareness, and it can be found within all of us. It’s important to think about what we’re doing and why we’re doing what we’re doing — that means thinking about our purchasing habits, work life, relationships, and our identities. It doesn’t have to be radical change, like how Fight Club depicts mass destruction and detachment from all material possession. We just have to reflect and take steps to align our actions with our values.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis