Balancing Happiness and Consumerism in the Digital Age

© Jaymi Heimbuch

When I turned 21 years old, my mom gave me one of the most memorable and important gifts I’ve ever received, a copy of Black Beauty. It had been passed down from my grandmother to my mother and then to me, with each of our names, the date we were given the book, and our home address written in the front. A piece of my family history is made obvious with those inscriptions -- the three different surnames tracing my family’s roots, and all three addresses, each of different homes in the same town, remind me about my family’s background in this one small part of California. The value of that book is not in the story of the beloved equine, but the fact that this particular book had been cherished by both my mother and my grandmother, and now it is entrusted to me.

Recently, that copy of Black Beauty came to mind when I was deeply conflicted about buying an e-reader. I was trying to determine if an e-reader was just another digital indulgence I didn’t need, or a tool that would truly enhance my life. Compounding the problem was the fact that a few weeks ago, I wrote about consumer electronics and the illusion of choice, and I came to the conclusion that the more electronics we buy, the more burdened we feel by them. And yet, here I was thinking that this was one gadget I didn’t want to do without.

Choosing Camps
There were the obvious reasons behind considering the e-reader purchase: You can hold a multitude of books in one e-reader, which solves the problem of bulk and weight when packing for travel. It would also spare me the domestic conflict with my partner regarding piles of books I tend to leave teetering on desks, nightstands, and coffee tables. And it would solve the problem of what to do with books when I’m done reading them.

But an e-reader also brings up other aspects of consumerism: the ease of impulsive purchases, the desire for instant gratification, a diminished perceived value of a product because of its digital format, the conundrum of minimalism, and so on. With the purchase of this e-reader, big and complicated questions of consumerism begged for my attention.

There have been (at least) three camps holding simultaneous discussions for the past few years when it comes to digital books. There are the book lovers who feel an e-reader could never possibly replace the pleasure of reading a printed book. There are the minimalists who love the idea of digitizing everything we own to reduce the clutter and footprint of physical objects. And there are tech lovers who recognize that e-readers are an undeniable part of our reality now so hurry up and join the party.

Each camp has a valid, if contradictory, point. And therein lay the complexity of my decision-making. As much as I like to think I make decisions independently, I realize that, in in addition to marketing garble, consumers -- especially green consumers -- are bombarded by musts and shouldn’ts that influence our desires and our actions.

Wants and Want-Nots
Recently a study proved (yet again) that wanting stuff makes us happier than having stuff. The anticipation, the expectation, the imagining of life with some object is, in fact, the actual source of joy rather than the ownership of the thing. As advertisers so amply know, we buy based on emotions. We buy because we think the item in question will make our lives better or make us a better person, or because we believe that the product is good for the environment. So I questioned why I wanted this device -- was this desire for an e-reader stemming from the (successful) bombardment from marketers for the latest technology, or would it truly be a useful and long-term tool?

When weighing my decision, my reasons piled up. I want my partner to feel comfortable in her own apartment without pretending not to see ever-growing piles of books. I want to be able to toss one small device in my travel bag and know that it holds as much entertainment as I could want for any journey. I want to buy books without having to wonder where I'm going to store them. And harder to admit is this: I want to feel like a minimalist, to appear like a minimalist, even while having an abundance of books. I want to be able to buy a book and have it right then and not have to scour a used book store or wait for it to arrive in the mail. I want to be in all three camps at once. I want.

Many of us labor over decisions like this constantly. The clash between the consumer culture in which we are embedded and the culture of ecological (and sometimes spiritual) consciousness we choose can sometimes drive us to pure frustration. The grocery store alone is a battleground, where labels such as "organic’" "Non-GMO," "convenient," "one-step,” "compostable," "eco-friendly," and "quick-n-easy" are flung like cannon balls. As we navigate what is important to us at that moment, we question our decisions, we question our integrity, and we even question our questions.

It's not easy being a responsible consumer. It’s taken me 30 years on this earth to figure out how to stop and ask myself why I’m buying something and if I will hold that item as valuable after the thrill of the purchase disappears. This is, after all, the crux of our consumer culture (perhaps our economy?): Buying to fulfill a need or enhance our lives versus buying for an endorphin rush. With the constant stream of new technologies in consumer electronics, does the ease and instant gratification of the digital age make us forget to stop and question our purchases?

Consumerism Is Not an Either-Or Game
What I've come to realize is that in the printed-books versus e-books challenge (as with so many other things in our increasingly digitized world) it is not an either-or situation. One does not replace the other. Each has their its own merits and pitfalls. In an article about why books will never disappear, Mashable’s Josh Catone writes, "[T]he writing appears to be on the wall: E-books are slowly subsuming the printed format as the preferred vehicle on which people read books...For those who prefer their books printed in ink on paper, that sounds depressing. But perhaps there is reason to hope that e-books and print books could have a bright future together, because for all the great things e-books accomplish — convenience, selection, portability, multimedia — there are still some fundamental qualities they will simply never possess."

Catone lists those qualities as physical beauty, provenance, collectability, and nostalgia. Indeed, these qualities are four that remind me that while e-books have their place in my life as a consumer, so too do printed books. That copy of Black Beauty is a perfect example. It is a cherished gift that no e-book could possibly match. It just is not possible for a digital book to become that kind of heirloom.

That said, not every book is cut out to be heirloom material no matter the format. The piles of paperbacks stacked up in my apartment are like disposable coffee cups -- essentially junk when I’m done. Although I frequently donate or trade them, effectively, I’m done and moving on. I would far rather spend the money on e-book versions of these and not deal with the physical copies. My desire here is in the knowledge acquired from them, or the entertainment derived from the text. They have their purpose, even if they are, to some degree, disposable.

Perhaps this is one of those beautiful conundrums where we actually don’t have to trade one for the other. Instead of feeling guilty about digital and print purchases, what I have come to realize is that e-readers provide more choice about how to be more responsible about purchases. I propose instead to ask myself the following questions when book shopping: What is the value of this book to me? What do I want from this book -- the experience of reading it, the entertainment or information within it, an object to cherish? Which would be more fulfilling to me, a print copy or a digital copy?

Put another way, a book is not a book is not a book. My copy of Black Beauty cannot be compared to a paperback I grab at a newsstand. As responsible consumers, we must grapple with questions regarding everything from groceries to clothing to phone apps. Nothing is without a footprint; nothing is brought into our homes without a reason -- even if that reason stems from emotion rather than basic need. It’s good to be an informed and educated consumer. It’s okay to struggle with purchasing decisions. But we also need to realize that ultimately the smartest -- and therefore most useful -- purchase is one that creates the greatest satisfaction on an individual basis.

E-books, Abundance, and Happiness
E-books are not an escape from consumerism. They are a different form of consumerism. They are another way to own stuff; they are another of the many things we think about purchasing, hand over money for, keep cataloged in our homes, in our brains and on our devices. Will an e-reader let me have that abundance of books that want, while also providing the feeling of minimalism that I crave? Perhaps. The key to that seemingly contradictory state lies in the concepts of abundance and happiness.

The feeling of abundance does not necessarily stem from what we own, but how we look at what we have in our lives. We are creatures that want, that delight in acquisition, but it’s not always the book itself that you really want. Rather, it’s what you gain from the book. Abundance is found in the hours of entertainment, emotional impact, conversations with friends, and the thoughts a book sparked. Having stuff is not the same as experiencing abundance, just as buying stuff is not the path to happiness. These critical and highly sought-after states of being lie in what we do with what we have, and the decisions we make on a daily basis.

Ultimately, I bought the e-reader. But instead of being the end-game in itself, it has become a tool for making and experiencing purchasing decisions. Now, it sits on my desk as both a way to enjoy new books and as a reminder to live an examined life -- along with my copy of Black Beauty, of course.

Tags: Consumerism | Electronics | Gadgets | longreads

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