How much is too much? Consumerism and Happiness in an Age of Plenty

“I shop, therefore, I am.” “You are what you own.” “He who dies with the most toys wins.” “The only value is market value.” These pithy slogans, and many more like them, capture the sentiment of many today, especially in America. Amazon, Walmart, and Apple are the new holy trinity of modern America. The sporting complex is the new community center. Endless (and, all too often, mindless) movies, television, and concerts fill up the periphery of our lives. Social media beckons us too, even in our work, to escape to a virtual world where our sense of worth is shaped by the collective “other” through likes, comments, and pictures of the “best selves” of those enjoying material goods and pleasurable experiences ad infinitum.

We might ask, what is the driving factor behind these pithy slogans and the relentless pursuit of more stuff and more experiences? The idea is that somehow things and experiences will make us happy. They will satisfy. The “good life” consists in the accumulation of stuff and experiences.

The problem with this picture is twofold. First, statistics reveal that while modern Americans have more stuff and more leisure than ever before, we are a profoundly unhappy people.[1] It simply is not the case that things and experiences make us happy in the long run. Second, the issue is complex, and as it turns out, there is truth to be found in the middle of all the excess. Material things are not, in themselves, bad. Many experiences—including entertainment—are not, in themselves, bad. The problem begins when we try to squeeze more out of these things and experiences than they were meant to provide. The problem, then, is one of context.

In his chapter on “hope” in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explores the human quest for happiness by describing three kinds of lives.[2]

The fool, according to Lewis, is the person who blames the object or experience itself when he realizes that it was not the thing he really wanted. As Lewis puts it, “He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after.”[3]

The fool, according to Lewis, is the person who continues to think the deeper longings of the human heart can be satisfied by things that have already been tried but found wanting.

The disillusioned “sensible man” is the man who gives up on the search for a deep and abiding happiness. As Lewis describes this man, “He soon decides that the whole thing is moonshine. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘one feels like that when one’s young. But by the time you get to my age, you’ve given up chasing the rainbow’s end.’”[4]

If there is nothing more to reality than the physical world, then this is the best we can expect, according to Lewis. Perhaps most today are disillusioned as Lewis describes it. It helps us understand and have compassion on those who seem to be in constant need to fill their lives with new things and new experiences. If this life is all there is, then by all means let’s squeeze as much out of it as we can, even if we have deeper longings—for meaning, purpose, value—that we cannot satisfy.

Lewis, however, asks: “But suppose infinite happiness really is there, waiting for us? Supposing one really can reach the rainbow’s end?”[5]

What then? If there really is “infinite happiness” and we miss it, that would be a pity. This leads to Lewis’ third kind of life, what he calls “The Christian Way.” Lewis states, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”[6]

Lewis’ point is this: We find some desires—for example, our desires for meaning, purpose, significance, truth, beauty, goodness, unconditional love and more—that ultimately cannot be satisfied in this world (he lumps all of these together as a kind of desire for transcendence, or heaven, or for God). That these desires for meaning, purpose, and value cannot be satisfied by things in this world does not mean the world is a fraud; it just means the things of this world were not meant to completely satisfy, but only (as he says) “to arouse and suggest the real thing.”

The Christian story helps us to see that true happiness is ultimately found in union with God. This is why the Christian life is to be characterized by hope. One day, all human desires will be satisfied, and man will truly and fully be happy. The good news is that genuine happiness is available to all now. Jesus said it best: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10, NIV). Jesus invites us into a relationship with Him and offers us the fullness of life both now and for eternity.

In the Christian story, material possessions and entertainment are not bad in and of themselves. In fact, when properly situated, they are best understood as gifts, things provided to us for our enjoyment and satisfaction, but also suggestive of something deeper.

How much is too much? Here are some questions to ask yourself: In what am I finding life? Where do I place my hope? What is the basis of my identity? If your answer to any of these questions includes things or entertainment, then it is possible that material possessions and the entertainment complex have become idols in your life. My encouragement is not to reject material things or entertainment, but to locate them within the Gospel story as gifts. Then we will not only find pleasure in them, but they will awaken us to the deepest longing of our heart to be united with the Giver of all good things.

[1] For a good summary of some of these statistics, see John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkle, A Practical Guide to Culture (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2017), chap. 12.
[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2000).
[3] Ibid., 135­–36.
[4] Ibid., 136.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 137.