Is Consumerism Killing Our Creativity?

Have you ever fallen into a black hole of comparison shopping? You’re looking for a new digital camera, for instance. You head over to Cnet.com and read some reviews of various cameras, watch the video demos, identify the model you want. Then perhaps you employ Google’s shopping search to price out the options and find the best deal. All of the sudden, it’s four hours later. You’ve found the perfect camera, but your purchasing triumph is tainted by a creeping feeling of, well, disgust. Couldn’t that time have been used better?

I was thinking recently about what my biggest distractions were – the things keeping me from pushing my creative projects forward. As I scanned through my daily activities, I found that the most insidious distraction was, in fact, things. More specifically, the wanting, hunting, and getting of things –  whether they be tangible (a new computer) or intangible (information).

As Annie Leonard says in The Story of Stuff, “Our primary identity has become that of being consumers – not mothers, teachers, or farmers, but of consumers. We shop and shop and shop.” We love our stuff. Yet more than the stuff itself, we love the act of finding it – the search, the anticipation.

But why is consumerism – and particularly, an online hunt for the ideal purchase – so addictive?

It turns out that our consumerist impulse stimulates the same part of the brain that fires when we’re on the trail of a great idea. As we go through the trial and error of executing an idea – What if I tried this? Ah! Now what about this? – we’re using those same wanting, hunting, getting instincts but in a nobler pursuit.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls this highly addictive emotional state “seeking.” In a Slate article on seeking, writer Emily Yoffe sums up his research:

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits ‘promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,’ Panksepp writes. It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused.
The consumerist search capitalizes on the same “seeking” part of the brain that fuels the creative rush. Of course, while consumerism can serve as an addictive substitute for the stimulation of creative activity, it offers nowhere near the same reward in the long term.

As creatives, we can often rationalize spending time on shopping by telling ourselves that we’re investing our time, energy, and money in a new tool – an item that’s going to catapult our creativity to the next level. Maybe it’s a new computer, maybe it’s a musical instrument, maybe it’s a studio of one’s own. Once you get that new thing, you think, you’ll have a superior means to complete your work.

It’s a false promise, of course. A means of procrastination baked into our consumerist culture. No external thing can prompt creativity, and there’s no substitute for just getting down to doing the work. In fact, it’s been proven that hardship – being deprived of things – stimulates creativity more than being well-off. A recent Newsweek article on America’s declining creativity reported:

Highly creative adults frequently grew up with hardship. Hardship by itself doesn’t lead to creativity, but it does force kids to become more flexible—and flexibility helps with creativity.

When we have less to work with, we have to be more creative. Think about that the next time the consumerist impulse is threatening to encroach on your creativity.

Consumerism vs. Creativity – Your Thoughts?

Do you feel like our consumerist culture suppresses creativity? Have you battled against the consumerist instinct?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Time Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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