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Actually, money can buy happiness — and that’s a problem

Why the environmental movement can’t ignore mental health

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When you’re buying the new iPhone, are you really buying it because you want your phone to have three cameras? Or are you buying it because it might make you happier about who you are?

Studies recently carried out by Mark Forehand, a marketing professor at the Foster School of Business, indicated the latter: Our choices to purchase and upgrade devices are directly linked to our sense of self-worth.

In one study, Apple users implicitly associated their successes in life with their usage of Apple products. People who felt a stronger sense of personal improvement were more likely to appreciate improvements in the newest iPhone and had a stronger desire to upgrade.

In another study, participants who were given a momentary boost of self-esteem were less likely to buy a pair of athletic shoes than the control group.

“‘When people’s need for self-esteem is satisfied, focusing on self-improvement no longer increases perceptions of product improvement and intentions to upgrade,’” Forehand said in an interview about the study posted to Foster’s website. “‘But lack of self-esteem heightens these.’”

This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Perceived obsolescence, or business practices to make people feel the need to upgrade new things due to what’s “trendy” rather than improvements in functionality, has been standard practice in the marketing industry for a long time. 

Marketing that targets self-esteem is nothing new, either. It’s been well documented that advertising by the beauty industry, for instance, causes low self-esteem and even eating disorders in consumers, particularly in women. Studies have also indicated that compulsive buying disorder, which affects about one in 20 people in the United States, is linked to feelings of low self-esteem.

Beyond the mental health implications, another concerning aspect of this particular study is its implication for our planet in the era of climate change.

“When people want to buy more ‘stuff,’ as in upgrading something they already own, you are inherently impacting the environment,” Tim Billo, a lecturer in the environmental studies program, said in an email.

“‘Stuff’ has to come from somewhere and usually involves extracting resources from the Earth, and this process usually involves the expenditure of fossil fuels.”

Consumerism also creates a waste problem. Americans throw away 9.4 million tons of e-waste per year. According to a study by Zero Waste Europe, the beauty industry generated 120 billion units of packaging in 2018, most of which went to waste. The fashion industry — a popular target of impulse purchasing — is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions.

It’s easy to say we need to change our spending habits to stop environmental degradation, but it’s much more challenging in practice, when our purchases are linked to something as deep-rooted as our self-esteem at the subconscious level.

Of course, the ideal solution to consumption-caused environmental damage is not solely to put the burden on individuals, but for governments to regulate corporations through policies that ensure products are created sustainably. However, taking care of our self-esteem can not only help us take on some personal responsibility for the planet, but also be good for our brains and our wallets.

According to Mayo Clinic, some effective strategies for boosting self-esteem are avoiding the following: all-or-nothing thinking, negative self-talk (including self-deprecating humor), and immediate jumping to negative conclusions.

Like avoiding compulsive buying, these strategies can be easier said than done, particularly because issues with self-esteem are commonly associated with mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. Ending the stigma against mental illness and allowing easier access for treatment, therefore, is not only good for ourselves, but is also good for the planet.

We all know marketing is bad for our brains, and we all know that consumption is bad for the environment. If we’re going to fight climate change, we can’t forget the intrinsic link between the two.

Reach writer Natalie Rand at Twitter: @n_rand_

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