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Joe Badalamenti

It’s become very cliche to talk about “society”. Most people will agree that something is wrong with it, but what is lacking from these discussions is a proper diagnosis of its ailments. Many who speak on these issues are either grifters, or lack information and perspective crucial to understanding reality. Like many large-scale problems, the ailments of “society” boil down to a number of different issues. Though these issues are many, one theme central to almost all of them is the obsession with materialism 

Now I know that writing about a broad subject like “materialism” is also cliché, but I promise that I will go beyond the standard motivational-speaker talking points. The philosophy of materialism prevails as society encourages its pursuits. Personal lives of celebrities are put on public display in admiration, betting and stock-trading have become common hobbies, I’ve even seen friends ridiculed because they didn’t have the right phone. But why not embrace wealth? It’s clear that material conditions are not only tangible but also have the ability to make positive impacts on many. I doubt many would choose to live without the refrigerator, air conditioning, or any other innovation of this type. Obviously, if you focus on material conditions, you will witness large improvements in living conditions.

So then what is the issue with materialism? The problem is in treating it as an end. While improving one’s conditions can, and likely will, make one happier—if only marginally so, as there is no way to “win” in this game. One can attempt to continuously increase their wealth, however, there is no limit, no threshold, no finish line, that when crossed will result in the highest utility. In economics, there is a concept known as the law of diminishing marginal utility, which states that the rate of one’s utility will decrease as one’s consumption of goods increases. In layman’s terms, this means that it will take more and more to replicate previous bursts of pleasure. If you’ve been on certain corners of the internet, you’ll recognize the comical internet meme known as the “coomer” or the “consoomer.” As stereotypical as this meme is, the “consoomer” works as a generalization of this concept. For he must “consoom” more and more in order to maintain his licentious lifestyle. By itself, is this not fine? One could theoretically just work harder and harder in order to increase their utility right?

This brings us to the second issue: most of one’s material conditions are a result of fortune or circumstances that are out of their control. This includes genetic factors, environmental factors, access to accurate information, and more. While there are useful formulas that generally establish correlations with increased utility, this doesn’t change the fact that certain levels of utility may be out of one’s reach barring an unlikely turn of fortune (i.e. winning the lottery). Now when you combine the diminishing utility with the reality of circumstance, what results is a destructive vision. As one chases after a goal they can never attain he will become disillusioned and nihilistic. Unless he were to step out of the materialism-as-an-end frame of mind, he will be trapped in an endless cycle of agony. It’s similar to chasing perfection: with one becoming increasingly disappointed in their attempt to realize an impossible goal.

That being said, there must be some way out of this cycle. Luckily for you, there are several possible solutions. The first option involves an intervention to either put everyone at the same starting point or outcome. Unfortunately, not only is this equality solution impossible, it also maintains the frame of materialism which we are trying to escape. A more useful solution would be to find a minimal condition where all of one’s needs are met. This idea of minimalism not only escapes the trap of “consoomerism” but it also allows one to find happiness through non-material endeavors such as relationships with family and friends. The last solution is to adopt some form of spirituality. Like minimalism, spiritual outlooks also avoid the pitfall of materialism. Christianity in particular provides one with a path to salvation if one is faithful. I could go more in depth, however, that is a topic for another article. Overall, if you choose a framework that rejects the materialism-as-an-end framework, then you might escape the cycle of agony.

In the end, the mindset of endless materialism is very tempting. Because it is a strictly physical phenomenon, many are inclined to choose a path that maximizes their physical utility. However, this path often leads to disappointment, depression, and regret. In spite of this, there remains these paths less traveled, which leads out of agony.

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