Cultural distress (and consumerism)

For decades, marketers (and politicians) have been working to amplify cultural distress, a hack on our emotions.

Not the tragic emotional distress of being unable to care for your kids, find a place to live or deal with trauma, but the invented cultural distress of modern industrialized societies.

This is the easily created shame of not having a new suit to wear to the garden party, or having to use an old model smartphone instead of the new one. It’s the dissatisfaction of knowing that something ‘better’ is available, and the invented discontent that comes from the peer pressure of being left out or left behind.

Or it might be the social shame that comes from not having a big enough presence on social media, or the fomo that watching other people presenting nothing but happiness online can create.

It can be amplified with a sort of nostalgia for times when everything was perfect, or anxiety about a future when we imagine we won’t have enough.

Fear of this sort of cultural distress pushes us to simply spend money to avoid it. It’s easier to lose your life’s savings and peace of mind to end-of-life care than it is to simply draft a living will. It’s easier to give in to the high-pressure tactics of a real estate broker than it is to look squarely at the feelings that you might not actually get this particular house. Making a budget is hard, paying for not making one is easy.

It turns out that selling an easy and convenient way to avoid social pain is a nearly boundless formula for corporate growth. And so people with a lot of resources are still unhappy, because they succumb to invented narratives about cultural distress–and then, once they buy something to avoid it, discover that it’s still there.

Marathon runners don’t complain about the tired, because getting tired is a necessary component of a well-run race. And human beings are always going to find moments of cultural distress, and it’s up to each of us to decide what to trade (in the short run and the long run) to deal with it. Perhaps it makes sense simply to acknowledge that it’s present.