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How the Search for Meaning Impacts Consumption

People are not effectively using consumption to lead meaningful lives.

Key points

  • People's beliefs about consumption may prevent them from optimally using consumption to enhance their well-being.
  • When they are seeking meaning in the marketplace, people buy less expensive goods, which is less satisfying.
  • We may need to rethink our collective ideas about meaning and consumption.

Some things, even in the face of unimaginable and horrific events, don’t die out.

People’s search for meaning in life is one of them. Human beings across the world, regardless of age, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, seek a life that is filled with purpose, connection, and significance.

The Covid-19 pandemic pushed this quest to the fore as people grappled with social isolation, lost loved ones, and the disruption of life as they knew it.

While there have been many coping strategies, one of them—buying stuff—is not surprising for the action but for the reason. While it’s often dubbed Retail Therapy, people buy stuff to cheer themselves up and regain control over their lives, people’s purchases during the pandemic may have been motivated by something deeper, such as the quest for meaning.

When people couldn’t visit their friends and family, when they couldn’t work, or when they couldn’t travel the world, they also lost some meaning in their lives. People may have bought home gyms, supplies for self-improvement, and materials for home improvement to infuse their lives with some meaning.

Some readers may bristle at this suggestion. Indeed, in a recent paper, my co-author Lawrence Williams and I argue that people believe that meaning and consumption don’t mix—you can’t buy meaning. In daily life, many sources of meaning are free, such as time spent with loved ones or time spent praying.

But such beliefs may prevent people from having the chance to live their best lives. When Williams and I studied participants in Canada, the United States, Australia, and the UK, we found that people seeking meaning through consumption bought less expensive goods—they cheaped out instead of splashing out.

Inexpensive goods may undermine well-being because they tend to be less satisfying, are less likely to be used and integrated into the self, and are more costly because they break down sooner and are less sustainable. An inexpensive coffee maker, for example, may bring less enjoyment during the morning coffee ritual, solo or with a loved one. It may also break down earlier (costing you more to replace it) and carry higher environmental costs.

Mindset and culture may matter. People in Japan, for example, derive a sense of meaning from the rituals of consuming Japanese tea. And as the pandemic anecdote suggests, when many of the typical sources of meaning have been cut off, people seemed to use the marketplace effectively to build back meaning in their lives.

As a society, we're reconsidering the relationship between work and meaning. It might also be time to reconsider the relationship between consumption and meaning. Cracking this puzzle may be a key to living our best lives.

References

Mead, Nicole L. and Lawrence E. Williams (2022), “Can’t Buy Me Meaning? Lay Theories Impede People from Deriving Meaning and Well-Being from Consumption,” Current Opinion in Psychology.

Mead, Nicole L. and Lawrence E. Williams (2022), “The Pursuit of Meaning and the Preference for Less Expensive Options,” Journal of Consumer Research.

Sun, Jennifer J., Silvia Bellezza, and Neeru Paharia (2021), “Buy Less, Buy Luxury: Understanding and Overcoming Product Durability Neglect for Sustainable Consumption,” Journal of Marketing, 85 (3), 28–43.

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