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Creative Blocks

Is Consumerism Killing Our Creativity?

Modern culture thrives on consumerism. But does our passion for consumption come at the expense of 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 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?

Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (42)
  • Ebun Omoni

    There’s a quote by a legendary ruby developer about creating versus consumerism and it seems appropriate to quote as a response to this article:

    “When you donâ??t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. so create.”
    â?? Why the Lucky Stiff

  • Jyoti

    I think that all the advertisements that persuade us to consume are killing our creativity because they dont stimulate our minds. They are simply designed to persuade you to buy. A tiny percetage of them actually invoke thought, but most are simply brain dullers. As a creative, I dont spend much time shopping around because I already know it kills time,I simply just go and buy, plus Im a broke creatibe anyhow, buying things is not even in my vocab right now.

  • TubbyMike

    How aposite. Here I am at 02:00 trying to track down Rhodia Dot Pads on the net. Oh dear. How sad.

  • Sreedhar

    Shift form creativity to consumerism may be due to lack of time and the way companies are promoting their brands. Its very often easy to sit and compare a few brands and pick the best one that matches your budget, specification, etc rather than than going to a shop and finding an ideal product of your choice. True that there may be creativity lost in the process but the debate is around time vs creativity too!

  • Michelle Tripp

    At a time when one of the ad industry’s most iconic creative directors is leaving the industry and discouraging consumerism as he walks out the door, we have to give some deep thought to an emerging trend and think about what’s really happening. The economy is lagging, consumers are looking to accumulate more experiences and fewer objects, and there’s an anti-Walmart sentiment that continues to grow. It’s become cliche to say the world is changing, but in this case it appears our inner worlds are changing, too. Thanks for the great post!

  • Steven

    Brilliant. When we define ourselves only by what we have (materialism) or what we produce (superficialism) we miss the depth of our soul. That we are filled with potential, overflowing with promise, and that we were created to be something uniquely powerful. The acts of consuming and producing are best kept as that – acts. Actions that unleash who we really are. For they are not the point in and of themselves.

  • Jocelyn

    @Ebun – Wow. Love that quote. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jocelyn

    @TubbyMike – I know! As writing is my creative profession, I have certainly found myself wasting precious time on “finding the perfect notebook” in the past. But, of course, you can draw/write on a napkin as well as the perfect pad. If you’re having trouble focusing, Jack Cheng’s 30 Minutes a Day practice is a good place to start:

  • nancy m

    It gives us a false sense of purpose, meaning and hope.

  • Helen

    I love to shop, not just because I’m a woman who enjoys the temporary euphoria it brings, but also because I’m driven by a powerful determination to find the perfect article. I have (sadly) spent hours Googling and re-Googling and even Asking because my searches didn’t turn up the results I was looking for. Yet, I cannot seem to find the time to finish the last chapter of my book … maybe I just can’t find the inspiration because I know deep down that I want it to be perfect. So is my determination to find perfection preventing me from actually creating anything worthwhile at all? I need to look inwards to find the answer, so maybe I should just log off my Mac right now …

  • M Minar

    I really don’t agree with the idea that the longer you research a particular purchase, the more you are contributing to consumerism. The beautiful fact that we even have choice in our daily lives aside, I think the active and reasoned seeking of a product, for which you have saved (in my case) hard-earned money for, is antithetical to consumerism (thoughtless and impulsive). When I bought my first entry-level DSLR camera, I was thrilled. My wife and I can’t get enough; our hobby has brought us closer and our apartment is filled with portraits of our new-found passion. It took investing four hours of my afternoon at the store (no kidding); well worth it, if you ask me. If your purchase is intentionally and thought out, you can be creative about your ‘hunt’, and if that product can bring you more creativity (indeed a camera in my case), how can we say there’s something wrong about that?

    On the flip side, watch Barry Schwartz does an amazing job explaining how choices (including consumer choices) can make us miserable:

  • Carol

    I moved from New York to New Mexico last year. I used to shop a lot there–sometimes just window shop, but it still wasted a lot of my time. Now I almost never shop, and I’m having the most creative year of my life. It may also have something to do with the fact that I no longer watch TV. Our culture is a comparison culture–shopping feeds an insecure need to fit in and stack up in a fabricated reality. Turning that urge off is one of the best things you can do for your creative spirit.

  • Jan Greve

    Very interesting thoughts on a everyday issue a lot of creative professionals do not mind. Using a computer as the major tool with more and more amazing features does not influence the quality of creative output but mainly the quantety of time to spend with it. Maybe us creatives love new gadgets and tiny technical stuff because it is stimulating our brain like real good ideas do. This could be even dangerous if we just follow those impulses not realising we are producing garbage meanwhile.

  • Aaron S.

    I totally disagree with this article. In fact, I’m really noticing the trend of writing about “blaming the internet for wasting time and ruining the world.”

    Devil’s advocate:
    I need to purchase a new TV. I could get in my car and drive around to every mall, electronics store in the city and listen to every salesman’s opinion about which TV is the best and best for me. I waste a LOT of time doing this. I also waste a LOT of gas doing this, which costs me money. And who wants to spend the day fighting traffic and crowds at the mall.

    I could also buy the first one I see without know it was the best price or best TV for what I need. I take the chance there may be a better deal out there, there may be a better quality TV, there may be higher performing TV. I could waste money, time and possibly buy an inferior product.

    I can potentially avoid all of this by shopping online. I bet people save time shopping online on the whole. I will most certainly get the best deal online. I’ll easily understand the capabilities of each product. I can even buy a used one off of ebay if I want. Better yet, I can read reviews on consumer reports and from individuals who actually have the products I’m interested in. I no longer have to rely on salesmen trying to make a commission to inform my decisions. I can also research the company that makes the products I buy. I can make sure they’re responsible and by planning my purchases this way I encourage companies to be more transparent and responsible. I become an educated consumer and it’s hard to argue that educated consumers can’t make the world a better place. This is all well worth my time.

    The internet as a consumption tool isn’t popular because of hype or trend. It’s popular because it works better in many ways. You could easily argue that using the internet to consume teaches us to research the products we buy, then demand more from them and the companies that manufacture them. We’re empowered with access to information and that produces knowledge and awareness. I would argue all of this encourages creativity. That’s a consumer society I want to live in. Because consumerism isn’t going anywhere. Rather than the internet stifling creativity, it has given us the opportunity to become creative consumers through awareness of choice, transparency, information and entrepreneurship.

  • Fredrik Westrin

    When reading the headline I thought the text would be from the consumerism manufactuers point of wiev. Don’t get me wrong, I do recognize myself in the main thought. Don’t know how many hours, days, weeks spent comparing specs, prices and rewievs. Not just the creative part of me, but also the nerdy one, become the happy camper I dream of when doing that.

    But, as mentioned, consumerism manufactuers point of wiev. What Aaron S. wrote are completly accurate as well, just from another perspective. The consumers tend to be more educated, which is a great thing, and that mean manufactures and retail stores needs to be greater on what they do. The problem is when that thing being misunderstod. More and higher specs dosen’t by definition mean better product. One of the biggest argument in the Mac vs Pc fight, as many surely already know.

  • Jocelyn

    @ Aaron S. – I agree that there is a trend of “blaming the Internet.” My intention here is not to do that. As you illustrate, the Internet can create incredible efficencies when it comes to something like comparison shopping. At the same time, the Internet also opens up the possibilities of consumerism more or less infinitely. If you can only shop at the stores around you, there’s a finite amount of things to want. With access to buy most anything anywhere online, our ability to desire more things expands. So there’s a flipside to the efficiencies gained. With this piece, I was hoping to spark debate about the value of time spent consuming things versus the value of time spent (creatively) producing things.

    @ M Minar – There’s no doubt that new purchases CAN empower us creatively, as you note with your DSLR camera story. I’m not arguing against that. Rather, my goal with the piece is to shine a light on our ability to let useful consumerism (like your example) drift into useless consumerism – where we are expending energy on wish fulfillment that might be better (and more satisfyingly) spent on creative activities. I’m not arguing for a wholesale rejection of consumerism, but rather asking that we examine how much time we spend shopping more closely. (Thanks for sharing the great TED video.)

    @Helen – You are so right about such research activities feeding a penchant for perfectionism. Some more thoughts on perfectionism here:

  • Aaron S.

    I think value of time spent wanting/searching for things vs time creating is a valid debate, you frame that well. What I was trying to say was, framing the issue around only internet consumption is not getting to the core of the problem. The internet is but a vehicle. It’s the age old debate, is money evil or are people evil? Do guns kill people or do people kill people? Although those are much worse problems, the idea is that people have to take responsibility for their own actions.

    The internet can be used in a very powerful way and as a matter of fact fuel our creativity and our ability to collaborate more than any other tool in history… or it can be debilitating. It’s up to the individual. If you have a problem with online shopping, it’s not the internet’s fault. Take the internet away and a new habit will most likely replace the old one. For instance, shopping at the mall or looking at Lucky magazine cover to cover.

    Anyway, the point is, let’s stop searching for scape goats, like consumerist culture, for lack of creative output. Culture is optional. Stuff is optional. Shirts and shoes are optional. And just the same, creativity is optional. Whether we think so or not.

  • Kellene

    I’m actually in the business of creativity — we publish several high-end magazines for artists and crafters. While I do believe our magazines stimulate creativity, there is one aspect of this article that really hit home: “When we have less to work with, we have to be more creative.”

    I have shelves and shelves, and drawers and drawers filled with crafting supplies and I’m overwhelmed with the choices. In fact, I’m frozen because I don’t know where to begin; so I don’t begin at all!

    One of the most creative projects I’ve seen over the years is a memory book a woman sent to us from her trip to Hawaii. She had decided not to take any crafting supplies, but in the middle of the flight to the island, she decided she “had” to create something to remember her trip by. So she collected “barf bags” from passengers and used them to create a book incorporating bits and pieces of papers (from menus, business cards, brochures, etc.) she collected during her trip and a little bit of paint, glue and scissors she purchased from the hotel gift shop. It was wonderful!

    I’ve tried to cut shopping out of my options of how to spend my time and I’m having to get very creative about where to go and what to do. It’s definitely a challenge, but one I feel I’m up to!

  • art donovan

    This story (and article) may well be at the very cutting edge of predicting a vast social change behavior and thinking.

  • CWeese

    “In fact, itâ??s been proven that hardship â?? being deprived of things â?? stimulates creativity more than being well-off.”

    I will never forget a beautiful photo essay I saw on Cuba many years ago. Please don’t take this out of context â?? it’s not a comment on the failures or triumphs of their political system â?? but it was stunning to see the re-use of old parts into new uses. When we can run down to the nearest superstore and buy a new fan, why would we ever bother to try and figure out how to make or fix one ourselves? A cheap consumer culture of “buy-and-toss” will never nurture that kind of creativity â?? it can perhaps only be found in forced circumstances, or in very determined DIY’ers.

  • DarkByke

    This just comes down to the few lines in the movie “Fight Club” about anti-consumerism. It’s destroying our society piece by piece! Hardship does inspire creativity!

    “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”

    â??Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct. If I saw something clever like the coffee table in the shape of a yin and yang,I had to have it. I would flip through catalogs and wonder, â??What kind of dining set defines me as a person?â?? I had it all. Even the glass dishes with tiny bubbles and imperfections, proof they were crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of wherever.â?? -Ikea Boy

    â??The things you own end up owning you.â??

    â??Weâ??re consumers. We are bi-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things donâ??t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guyâ??s name on my underwear.â??

  • james

    My netbook lacks power when it comes to video games, so i though i’d buy another one, but the new ones sucks, there isn’t a cheap netbook with ssd anymore.

    So i considered lenevo x100e, but apparently, they convert 540USD in 700â?¬ from the american to the french shop, and they force windows.

    So then, i though that for games, i could just buy a playstation3, and guess what: i’d have to buy another TV for that.

    Heck, i won’t buy a new computer, nor a new tv, nor a video console, just a 2USD game on android.

    I’m happy to read that i’m not the only one in this situation!

    Is there anything we could do to change the world?😉

  • Hazem

    Always ripped by my temptation to search for new books resources etc….THANKS MAN FOR THE TIP

  • Tina Matsimella

    I believe this article exposes much truth about our society adn how creatives are becoming sucked into consumerism. Creativity is about creating something from almost nothing so if we are collecting things to create , are we not hindering and somewhat polluting this process?

    We as creatives say that the best ideas are the simplest, so let s keep the process simpler with the use of less things! bring in the gadgets when most necessary, we know we can’t do without them.

  • James

    I don’t particularly disagree with anything here, but for an interesting counter-argument of creativity as consumerism see

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