As hand-scrawled letters to Santa Claus make their way to the North Pole, menorahs find their way to the counter, and Christmas trees go up in the living room, thoughts across America are turning toward one topic: presents. The newest cell phone, the newest television, the newest fashions – we are making our lists of the things we want for the new year.
In James Roberts’ timely volume, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy, we are invited to check our lists twice – and then cross things off.
On one of the first pages of "Shiny Objects," Roberts asks: “Why, in a land of the plenty, do Americans want more? And why is more never enough?” This is the question that "Shiny Objects" aims to answer. Through research studies, statistics, and history lessons, Roberts describes how “as consumers, we’re not who we think we are" – how what we say (that relationships and happiness are important to us) is often at odds with what we do (spend money or spend time working to make money), and how exactly Americans got to this point.
It all starts, Roberts tells us, with the American Dream.
“The traditional message of the American Dream was that through hard work, frugality, and sacrifice, anyone could achieve financial independence,” he writes. “Somehow we lost our way on the road to that dream.… Dreams of easy money have replaced hard work, thrift, and self-sacrifice.”
As Roberts takes us through America’s history – a section of the book that lags at times – we find clues to how and why we are in this predicament: from the California Gold Rush of 1848 (which helped promote America’s “get rich quick” attitude), to General Motors’ introduction of yearly style changes (“Americans wanted to have a car … that could say something about who they were or what their socioeconomic status was”), to the federal government’s legislation regarding homeownership. “It is truly a legacy of shame,” Roberts writes.
If history isn’t enough to convince us we’ve gone awry, the research and statistics on happiness and materialism could do it. There are the experiments that show people with more money are less willing to help someone in need, and that people need to be merely reminded of money to be less generous. There’s the Life Satisfaction poll, which shows that Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” are equally as happy – but no more so – than the Pennsylvania Amish or Inuit tribe of Northern Greenland.
Then there are studies that show materialism is associated with higher social anxiety, self-criticism, and time spent unhappy, and the ones that show “materialists report more headaches, colds, and bouts of flu than their less materialistic counterparts.”
According to "Shiny Objects," one of the major contributors to our materialistic attitudes, and especially money problems, is plastic. “Easily available credit has been our Achilles’ heel,” Roberts reports. Research has shown that credit cards not only increase the amount we’re willing to pay on products and tips, but that, just as the reminder of money makes us less giving, a subtle reminder of credit cards is enough to increase the amount we’re willing to pay for items and reduce the time needed to decide whether or not to buy something.
“The more we use credit cards to make purchases, the more we become ‘conditioned’ to spend, so that eventually credit cards logos and credit cards themselves gain the ability to elicit spending on their own – a frightening scenario that portrays consumers as unthinking zombies conditioned to spend mechanically when exposed to stimuli,” Roberts writes.
As we come to face our own materialism, we are thrown one bone: it’s not all our fault. The factors working to make us materialistic are plenty. There’s genetics, for one, which can contribute to how much self-control we have and how happy we are. And then there are the marketers and advertisers who have helped to swindle us. Since the advent of radio, then through television, movies, video games and now word of mouth, marketers and advertisers are everywhere – selling us products by convincing us life would be better with them.
“Many market appeals seek specifically to foster insecurity,” Roberts says. “Does my breath smell? Do I have BO? Does my car tell the world how worthwhile an individual I am? You get the picture: if we can foster a feeling of insecurity of self-doubt, a sale is soon to follow.”
Though most of Roberts book paints a grim picture of America’s consumer-bent culture, hope is just a few pages away. The best part about Roberts’ book may be the last three chapters where Roberts offers concrete steps every one of us can take to regain control of our finances and happiness. “Consider a ‘plastectomy,’” he suggests. “’Ban temptation from the house.’ ‘Pull the plug on the TV.’ Punish bad behavior and reward good behavior.”
He never said it would be easy.
"Shiny Objects" is, without a doubt, a difficult book to read, especially during the holiday season. It points fingers at you, inspires shame, and asks you to change your outlook on life. Though Roberts can sometimes seem overbearingly judgmental at times (it is difficult to look at our materialistic selves in the mirror), he wins us over with his arguments, his knowledge, and his genuine interest in helping to make us happier people. At its core, Roberts' book is about achieving true happiness. In the midst of its talk of consumerism, materialism, advertising, product placement, and debt, we learn the trick to avoiding unhappiness: Be content with what we have instead of always needing more.
If you’ve ever wondered how to make your life simpler, fuller, happier, and how to save money in the process – if you’ve ever asked yourself, “Is this the life I want to live?” – then "Shiny Objects" may just be the most important item you put on your wish list this year.
Kate Vander Wiede is managing editor of Boston's South End News.