Is Consumerism a Mental Illness?

Is consumerism a mental illness? Well, that depends on what it means to be mentally healthy. A paper from the World Psychiatric Association defines mental health as a state of internal and external equilibrium that produces a feeling of personal well-being.

Let’s look at those pieces. Internal equilibrium is a matter of finding a satisfactory balance of all the forces in one’s life in order to be functional and stable and satisfied. External equilibrium involves having a symbiotic relationship with one’s physical environment, with one’s social environment, and with the environment of values and meaning that gives purpose to one’s life.

Then you’ve got a twofold and integrated mental health.

I’ll build my case by looking at external disequilibrium, how it relates to consumerism, and how it contaminates internal equilibrium. Mental illness, here we come.

Here’s my starting point. It’s a bit of a stretch to think that an unbalanced external relationship will enable a balanced internal one — that an external disequilibrium will yield an internal equilibrium. So I proceed on the assumption that mental health (though it has many internal determinants) will not thrive in an environment of external conflict. The dysfunction of consumerism flows from that kind of dissonance.

But the economy of consumerism is not a weather system, where disinterested forces bounce off each other to produce equilibrium here, disequilibrium there. The consumer economy involves a powerful and effective marketing sector aggressively cranking out consumers who are in full disequilibrium with their environment. Mental illness is virtually inevitable for all but a few dissidents.

But we need some specifics.

Disequilibrium with the physical environment. It hardly needs to be said. Were all striving mightily, thanks to marketing psychologists, to maintain an affluent lifestyle that the earth cannot sustain. You know the details. What you probably don’t acknowledge is that you’re a living contradiction of grasping for what you can’t have for long — a living disequilibrium.

Disequilibrium with society. Your scramble to be middle-class enables an economy that sucks the life out of millions of poor people, at home and abroad, while siphoning off the spoils to the 1% of the1%. You look the other way, with relentless pressure from the marketing media — but you know you’re looking the other way, dont you? We proudly call ourselves the world’s good guys, but we know we willingly enable leeches in order to get our small cut. Talk about contradiction. Talk about disequilibrium. Talk about mental dysfunction..

Disequilibrium with values. We have an innate desire to seek meaning and purpose in our lives. Yet we buy into an ideology that celebrates — and rewards — greed alone. Consumption is the goal of life for the sole purpose of “personal utility” and nothing else. Our economic activities are a “disutility” endured in order to consume. That’s what economists and their media have convinced us to believe. But what could be more meaningless? So we live the contradiction of seeking meaning for our lives in the very flight from meaning.

I have not only described the external contradictions between our culture and it’s environment on all three counts. But I did it by pointing out the internal disequilibria they generate.

To turn the WPA definition around — mental illness is a state of internal and external disequilibrium that produces an unhealthy cognitive dissonance. Consumer junkies take note.

And I haven’t even talked about addiction.

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