From consumption to true happiness

From consumption to true happiness -- 28 December 2010, Managing for Society, The Manila Times

Leaders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) and the EcoWaste Coalition have recently pushed for minimizing the amount of rubbish we all generate during the yearend holidays. They called for lessening “gross consumerism” and ending the “holitrash” tradition.

This is a tough challenge for the Filipino worker. The Christmas bonus is seen as a product of hard work. What is the point of working so hard if one can’t enjoy the fruits, right? Retailers, manufacturers, hotels, resorts, airlines, credit card companies, etc., are more than happy to help the workers spend their bonuses.

In the workplaces, gifts move around with blinding speed. Individuals who normally hardly speak with each other find time to procure gifts for each other. Some gifts are “recycled”, extending the spirit of well-intentioned giving that the holidays engender.

The troubling thing is that material consumption does not, as a whole, lead to sustainable happiness. Annie Leonard, in The Story of Stuff (, described studies which showed that Americans reported the highest levels of contentment in the 50s, just before the explosion of consumerism which spread world-wide and which lasts to this day. Contentment reports have never gone back to the level of the 50s, despite the availability of every conceivable product in the market.

Electronic goods are an interesting example and, I must admit, my personal weakness. The rate at which consumers are buying and replacing consumer electronics goods has been accelerating steadily in last two decades. To many people, this year’s hottest product is next year’s house clutter. This is a major product design flaw which Leonard calls “design for the dump”.

Another irony of massive holiday consumption is that it can lead to serious environmental damage because of toxic materials found in many products, electronic devices included. This is ultimately self-destructive for communities.

Is there a way out? We can start by being more demanding about the environmental soundness of the products we buy. Some countries have begun to implement higher design standards and take-back policies for products. Greenpeace ranks the electronics manufacturers in terms of their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change. Nokia is on top of the 2010 rankings available at

A more basic solution is to lessen the amount of stuff we buy. But with what do we replace all the holiday buying? Where can sustainable happiness really come from during the holidays? The good news is that, for Filipinos, two important sources of happiness have always been well within reach. The first is high quality relationships. Uchida and colleagues, in their research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, analyzed what influenced the happiness levels of people from the US, Japan and the Philippines. They found that Americans tend to find happiness in personal achievements. In contrast, Japanese and Filipinos tend to find happiness in being part of positive social relationships – in short, going back to developing deeper and mutually supportive links with family, colleagues at work and the communities we belong to.

The second source of true happiness goes to the very essence of the Christmas season itself – spirituality. Man’s deep need to connect with a higher purpose and to find the sacred has long been acknowledged by respected psychologists such as Jung, James and Maslow. The holidays provide precious time to pause and reflect on the meaning of one’s life. A recommitment to the calling for selflessness and compassion that the season truly means is there for the taking.

The Christmas season is the best time to reach out to and mend conflicts with family, workmates, and neighbors. Better yet, it’s the best time to commit to maintain these relationships all year round -- not with material gifts but simply by being caring and decent to each other. Dedicating this to a higher purpose would be a surer path to happiness than anything one can buy.