The world we live in is a confusing and chaotic place. News stories surprise and astound us daily—from the discovery of Genie, a child bound to a crib for 13 years, to claims of the next apocalypse. It is often difficult to wrap our mind around what happens in our world, our country, even in our town, which leaves us grasping for something contained and predictable: stuff. If we can’t control or even comprehend our world, at least we can control what we own. . Since the things that we buy will endure, we will endure too, the unconscious thinking goes. In this way, the object lends the individual a future. Buying can impart a feeling of immortality and permanence to our ephemeral selves.
A recent ad for a fancy SUV taps lightly into this not-so-light issue: “To be one with everything,” it says, “you need one of everything.” With all of our belongings lined up like ducks in a row, w. e can achieve a sense of management and predictability that we simply cannot cast on our lives at large. Perhaps one of the most unpredictable and ominous occurrences in our mortal lives is death. Death is that looming life event that is in some unreachable corner of your future, but only time can tell when it will rear its head. Stuff is a perfect foil to our mortality, which we can see by the mile-high landfills that only keep growing. Maybe, just maybe, if we have enough physical belongings linking us to earth, we will become immortal with them. As Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy says in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life ever-lasting.”
This tendency to link buying more and more things to buying more time on earth is present in life stories as well as psychological studies. Rick, a 54-year-old set designer, began compulsively buying after being diagnosed with HIV over a decade ago. When Rick’s friends notice his stylish and of-the-moment outfits, he feels reassured and can briefly forget about his grisly future. When his health takes a turn for the worse, his buying and spending balloons, but when he feels healthier, he takes a respite. With death staring Rick in the face, he tries to shoo it away with earthly possessions and the latest merchandise. If he can’t shoo it away completely, at least he can rid his mind of it.
Rick is not alone in this tendency to buy when faced with his mortality, which has been proven by psychological studies. This tendency has even inspired its own school of thought: terror management theory. Enny Das and her team showed a group of research participants one of two ads: one with death-themed content and one without. Both ads were for a newspaper and had the tagline “How long do you want to wait?” While the control group saw a picture of a boy waiting at a mailbox, the experimental group members saw their name and birth date on a gravestone. Sure enough, the participants that saw their name and birth date on a tomb stone were more likely to buy the newspaper subscription than the participants that saw the innocuous ad.
Could this finding be a fluke, and the participants simply interested in becoming better read and educated about the news so that they are remembered fondly at their funeral? Or, perhaps the participants think that reading the newspaper will make their mind more active and delay death? In another experiment, Das and her team tested the effect of death related ads for healthy vs. unhealthy drinks. While the healthy drink would likely lead to better health and possibly a longer life, the unhealthy drink claimed to have a high amount of caffeine and alcohol, which would not be likely to prolong life. The study found that the participants were just as likely to buy the unhealthy drink as the healthy when primed with their gravestone. This suggests that people are not simply buying goods that will lengthen their lives, but to assuage the anxiety of an unknown, future demise. As the authors of this study put it, “In a materialistic world, where consumption, money, and possessions are important cultural values, buying into a good deal may affirm the fact that one is a valuable member of society, and this may alleviate a fear of death.”
Although there is this prevalent, and even innate, connection between buying things and diminished fear of death, the hope will bring us no positive results. Things, no matter how long they endure, or how much they link us to the material world, can’t save us from death. The more we buy things with this fool-hearted hope, the more time, energy, money—and rich life we let pass us by. When we are buying the newest iPhone, when we have a perfectly good year-old edition, or buying $500 shoes that we know will pinch our toes, we may actually be exchanging our money for a pipe dream. How can we beat this automatic attempt to escape death by buying what we don’t need, and what truly cannot buy us any more time? “The best tip to guard oneself,” Das advises, “is to keep close track of your expenses when confronted with terrifying images (ads) or events (e.g., terrorist attacks), even if you are convinced that these images/events have no power over you.” The advice I leave with you is to spend every last moment doing what fills you with joy instead of spending every last dollar in hopes of more moments.