Culture and relationships.
We’re social creatures. I hope this has taught us that products can not replace people.
If you are like me, you have probably spent more time in an app like Amazon or eBay than your checking account is comfortable with. Have you found yourself spending a lot of time on shopping apps, just getting lost in the sea of products out there, hoping to find something that will make you just a little bit happier, over the course of the epidemic?
If the growth continued at the same levels it was at for the past few years, it would take between 4 and 6 years to get to the levels we saw in May. By April this year, the sales of buy-online-pickup-in-store, also known as BOPIS, had surged 208% from last year. In just two weeks in March 2020, e- commerce rose 25%.
There is a vicious cycle at work. Shopping online is only one part of the equation. Some of us are converting from brick-and-mortar stores to digital apps and online retailers, but others are shopping more in total because they feel lonely, sad, and isolated. The loneliness epidemic has only been worsened by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Why are we doing this? Is it possible that we can’t be happy without the fanciest chair massager or the hottest new tech toy? Yes and no seems to be the answer. COVID-19 forces us to rely on social media for our interaction, social media and a lack of interaction can possibly deepen loneliness, and loneliness makes many of us shop more in search of fulfillment, but shopping never really fills the emptiness
The model of life is complete with pushy sales guys and telemarketers, people everywhere who try to leverage the idea that you can’t be happy without a certain product or service. The goal of advertising and our culture at large is to convince you that buying a certain product or service will solve all of your life’s problems. You would be tempted to believe that our goods make us happy. We have built an entire society predicated on this idea. The golden ticket to happiness is buying the right objects. I call it the standard model of consumer culture.
There is a lot of evidence that says otherwise. Some have suggested that the purchasing of goods, not even services or experiences, are done with the belief that they will lead to positive social encounters in the future. Is that true?
Steve Quartz is a co-author of the book Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World, and his theories fit nicely with the feelings that I think so many of us are feeling right now. The theory is that buying things will help us create or maintain human connections at some point down the road. The desire to be loved and accepted is at the bottom of all consumption.
Most of the products that drive our consumer economy are based on the perceived social value we think they will yield. It is not about the value of the pleasure so much as the sense of belonging we will receive from most human purchases. Quartz says:
Around 70,000 years ago, some of the first human ornaments in the form of jewelry were made. The ornaments are thought to have represented membership in a tribe. They helped people to feel like they belonged to a group of people they could trust. They were icons that showed the interconnectedness of the group.
It continues: We can do this because our cortex is a sort of social calculator that helps us gauge our self-esteem, a sort of self-esteem inner gauge. Our basic need to feel admiration and respect is created by this. According to psychologists, our happiness depends more on our esteem and respect than on our wealth.
The flaws in the standard model of consumer behavior are being exposed to even greater degree now that we are all alone and isolated, unable to engage in meaningful activities. The brain’s implicit estimate of how products impact our social identity is a key factor in the economic value of products today. College students value self-esteem more than sex. I would urge you not to view these as a waste of time. A basic and universal human need is to feel respected by others. It taps into the brain’s most powerful reward systems.
Our natural social reward systems have been interrupted, and that makes me feel uneasy. Even if we are able to shop from home with free same-day delivery, we still feel like something isn’t quite right.
When we buy a new dress or t-shirt, we usually do it with the idea that the people we care about will approve it. Humans crave interaction from the products they consume, such as heavy metal band t-shirts and Sunday church outfits. The joy people get from consumption isn’t enough without the ability to share their experiences with others.
At last, validation! We get positive feedback when we engage with other people and see the smiles on their faces.
I am enjoying a plate of mango habanero cauliflower wings while writing this story. I have a brand new comfortable chair and am watching a football game on my iMac. I have got the life. All of these things are great, but I still feel like there is something missing. It is not the same as sports were pre-pandemic. The human element is missing.
The feedback system has been disrupted by the fact that we are far removed from one another. The Internet can’t replace in-person validation and sense of belonging. This is not limited to the fashion industry.
Friends jumping up and down and screaming about the scores are not the same without the crowd. There is no excitement. It has been watered down. The experience is not as pleasant. Athletes play in stadiums that are almost empty, with a crowd of one huddled around screens just beginning to fall. There is no sense of connection in the social experience.
I won’t say that it’s a bad thing to eat alone, but it’s a good experience to treat yourself to a restaurant all alone. It does, that’s right. It isn’t the same without the social connection that drives our consumption of food, professional sports, or fashion. The same goes for our food. Prehistoric men and women bonding over the fires that kept them warm, safe, and alive is a universal human bonding experience.
The World Health Organization says loneliness is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. They have called it the silent epidemic. Social isolation is believed to be the biggest risk factor for human violence. When we feel lonely, and our culture doesn’t help, we often buy things secretly hoping we’ll feel more connected, only to be let down by the fact that products can’t replace people. This makes the feeling of loneliness worse for me.
I hope our society has learned from this Pandemic, among other things. Products can’t replace people, no matter how much we try. We need love and significance in our lives. Neither of these things can be done alone and in a vacuum.
We need each other. We need to feel a sense of belonging that helps us stay grounded, feel connected, and understand ourselves through the perspective of another. Having access to goods and services is likely to increase human happiness, but only if we are able to find joy in sharing the experiences they bring us with others.
Humans need to be loved.