Some considerations over consumption and happiness in the romanian society

AuthorRodica Ianole

Rodica Ianole. Faculty of Social and Administrative Sciences, “Nicolae Titulescu” University; (e-mail:

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1. Introduction

Happiness1 is probably one of the most frequent answers to the question regarding the purpose of our lives, the first natural law being expressed as “the man was born to be free and happy” (Lipovetsky, 2007, p 292). In our continuous attempt to reach it, we have abandoned the eudaimonic approach according to what happiness arises as people function and interact within society. Thus, an approach that places emphasis on non-material pursuits such as genuine interpersonal relationships and intrinsic motivations (Deci and Ryan 2001). Nowadays, the dominant paradigm is the hedonic one, where happiness is the result of avoiding pain and seeking pleasure.

In the name of this type of happiness the overconsumption society has rapidly developed. Acquiring more, bigger and expensive goods seems to have become synonym with satisfaction and happiness. The modern individual doesn’t know any other way to live than by possesion and by consumption.To believe you can retain the real through an image, to fill in a content through aPage 294 simple cover, to posses things through signs and signs through things, this is the common description of the consumption society, in total opposition with a contemplation society (Brune, 2003). Linking more explicitly consumerism to the level of happiness, in “Success Intelligence,” (2005) Robert Holden wrote, “The rise of consumerism has certainly influenced our thinking about happiness and success…We are making every effort to ‘buy, buy, buy!’ our way to happiness and success” (p. 110). While buying things can temporarily bring short-term pleasure, our prior levels of happiness soon return. In other words, we can’t buy our way to happiness.

In addition, the importance of the theme has been also reflected in a quantitative manner. According to the count of Kahneman and Krueger (2006), between 2001 and 2005, analyses on data regarding life satisfaction and happiness were present in more than 100 papers, in comparison with just four papers written in the period 1991-1995. This suggests a raised awareness, in the economists line also, that "happiness" is an interesting and empirically relevant concept that needs an interdisciplinary approach.

Within the above context, this paper explores the findings in the branch of economics of happiness applied at a first base level to the Romanian society. The privacies endured in the communist regimes, the lack of products, the lack of liberty of expression, the lack of mobility and the list of interdictions can continue, are important factors in trying to depict the psychology of the Romanians in face with capitalism and consumerism, and by consequence to a model of happiness, copied after the western and American examples. We will discuss in what degree some of the main developments in this field can find an echo in our contemporary reality, in line or in opposition with the global trends.

2. Literature review

The revelation of happiness insights into the economic science can be traced to Brickman and Campbell chapter from 1971, “Hedonic relativism and planning the good society”. The conclusion of their study was, or should have been, from the beginning intriguing for mainstream economics: improving the objective conditions of life (income or wealth) doesn’t have any lasting effects on personal well-being. The economists didn’t put too much emphasize on this insight, until 1976, when Scitovsky brought a new light on the subject through “The Joyless Economy”. He deepened the idea that happiness depends on where one stands in relation with others and not at all on one’s absolute standard of living. Many comforts are satisfying at first, but soon become routine and taken for granted. Consumer demand for them remains undiminished, but the original motivation, the desire for additional satisfaction, is replaced by the new and very different motivation of wishing to avoid the pain and frustration of giving up a habit to which one has grown accustomed (Scitovsky, p 137).

In this vicious circle, the commonly accepted view that consumption increases individual utility or well-being, has flourished and has derived into a strong consumerist wave. The neoclassical theory of consumer behavior has three important pillars to rely on: consumer sovereignty and exogenous preferences, rational behavior and insatiability (handbook, p 153). These hypothesizes provide the theoretical basis for the general widespread support to endless increases in economic growth because, according to Ackerman, ‘the only meaningful forms of individual satisfaction result from more consumption’ (Ackerman 1997:652).

An important voice, from the other side of the argument, to which I subscribe, is that of Juliet Schor (Schor, 2002) who understands consumption primarily as a social process. From herPage 295 perspective, in terms of function and motivation, “consumption derives from social communication and symbolic action, rather than the drive to meet basic needs such as food, shelter or clothing. We create our culture and the quality of social connection through our consumption practices”. The majority of consumerism critics acknowledges as a primarily observation and departure point the observation that people spend a lot of money purchasing goods that don’t actually produce lasting satisfaction or happiness: “as a society, we invest an enormous amount of money in some things, like advertising, or dubious product enhancements, while neglecting certain other important social priorities, like health, education, famine relief, and so forth” (Heath, 2001, p 3).

Further discussing the classical factors put in correlation with happiness, Boes and Winkelmann (2006) argued that the relationship between incomes and subjective well-being is an asymmetrical one in the sense that the income significantly diminishes the probability of a bad mood, but it doesn’t influence the high levels of satisfaction. The very simple and common sense explanation of economics stands in defining the marginal utility law: the benefits are progressively diminishing after a specific point –...

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