The percentage of people in Northern countries calling themselves happy peaked in the 1950s – even though consumption has more than doubled since then. Indeed, there is no consistent correlation between income, consumption and happiness. A global comparison of measures of happiness, in relation to levels of income per capita, indicates that the richer the country the smaller the correlation between income level and individual happiness.

It is no accident workers who are earning a lot of money because they work long hours provide the market for the very goods they are producing, and never mind if they do not really need the goods in question. The consumption becomes the reward for the hard work and the long hours.

Nevertheless, it cannot be a very satisfying reward, the conditions of dissatisfaction must be maintained, or markets for useless products would disappear under a gale of common sense. We become addicted to consumption, which provides no lasting satisfaction.

Source: Carley, M. and Spapens, P. (1998) Sharing the World: Sustainable Living and Global Equity in the 21st Century, Earthscan, London, p. 143.

This explanation of the paradox suggests that ‘dissatisfaction’ is central to market economies as they rely upon people becoming caught up in a vicious cycle of ‘work-and-spend’ – just like a fast-spinning wheel in which consumption must be paid for by long hours of work – which in turn needs to be rewarded by more consumption, and so on.

A second explanation of this paradox relates to the lack of regular contact with nature in modern life:

The consumer society required that human contact with nature, once direct, frequent, and intense, be mediated by technology and organisation. In large numbers we moved indoors, A more contrived and controlled landscape replaced one that had been far less contrived and controllable. Wild animals, once regarded as teachers and companions, were increasingly replaced with animals bred for docility and dependence.

Our sense of reality, once shaped by our complex sensory interplay with the seasons, sky, forest, wildlife, savanna, desert, river, sea and night sky, increasingly came to be shaped by technology and artful realities. Compulsive consumption, perhaps a form of grieving or perhaps evidence of boredom, is a response to the fact that we find ourselves exiles and strangers in a diminished world that we once called home.

Source: Orr, D. (1999) The ecology of giving and receiving, in R. Rosenblatt (ed) Consuming Desires: Consumption, Culture, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Island Press, Washington DC, p. 141.

Read the original source at UNESCO