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Why do we want more than we need?

What are the real reasons we consume so much? As austerity hits, it’s got to change, says philosopher Robert Rowland Smith

The much touted ‘age of austerity’ will limit our ability to buy, but will it curb our desire? After all, when straits become dire, it’s comfort we reach for, and, rightly or wrongly, there are few activities as comforting as shopping — which is why we talk about retail therapy.

But there’s an aspect to shopping that’s not therapeutic at all. As well as inducing comfort, shopping stimulates the desire to have things, and desire isn’t always a comfortable place to be. Consider: we don’t desire what we already have, so desire is predicated on a sense of lack. Partly because of its erotic connotations, we tend to idealise desire, but it’s actually a condition of wanting and emptiness. Desire is restless, and when we desire it’s hard to focus on much else.

In the Buddhist tradition, it’s even worse. Buddhism works on four holy truths, the first two of which are that ‘there is suffering in the world’, and that ‘all suffering is caused by wanting’. The Western obsession with consumerism makes us think that wanting is the exquisite precursor to having, but according to this Eastern corrective, wanting just makes us suffer. By turning our minds towards what we might acquire, wanting prevents us from living in the present and thus separates us from ourselves. Nirvana, the Buddhist word for enlightenment, means extinguishing the flames of desire.

Buddha’s answer to the pain of wanting is to let go of the future, indeed to let go of anything that isn’t right here, right now. Hence the practice of meditation, the point of which is not, contrary to popular belief, to zone out but zone in on what is. With it comes a great stillness, but here’s the twist. Sigmund Freud analysed the notion of nirvana and concluded that the great calm that follows from ceasing to want can barely be distinguished from inertia or — not to put too fine a point on it — death. For Freud, desire has an ulterior motive that lies well beyond acquisition, which is precisely the peacefulness of nirvana. What we desire when we desire is not climax and crescendo, but the relief to which they lead.

Translate that into shopping, and it suggests that the object of our desire is not that pair of shoes, but the relief that comes from having acquired them and thus no longer having to desire. Wanting, in other words, wants to not want. Not wanting feels a whole lot better than wanting, because it allows you simply to be. The calmness that comes from having bought something can be bought at a much cheaper price: not allowing your desire for it to stir in the first place.

If you want to find out what makes you buy things, and learn how to take back control, take the test in our September issue — on sale now!

Robert Rowland Smith is the author of ‘Breakfast With Socrates