Advertising Makes Us Unhappy

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Colleagues and I have been studying human happiness for 30 years now, and these days my focus turned to countrywide happiness. What are the features of a happy nation?What are the forces that mold one?What explains the ups and downs?I’d never checked out ads before, but I met a researcher who was amassing data on it for a special reason, and it appeared to me that we must always mix forces. Like a lot of people in Western society, I can’t help noticing the increasing amount of ads we’re bombarded with. For me, it was herbal to wonder if it might create dissatisfaction in our culture: How is your happiness and mine shaped by what we see, hear, and browse?I think it’s rather intuitive that lots of ads would make us less happy. In a sense they’re seeking to generate dissatisfaction—stirring up your desires so that you spend more on goods and services to ease that feeling.

I recognize, of course, that the area’s company advertisers and advertising and marketing firms won’t like hearing me say that. The idea here’s a very old one: Before I can decide how happy I am, I have to look over my shoulder, consciously or subconsciously, and notice how folks are doing. Many of my feelings about my income, my car, and my house are molded by my next door neighbor’s income, car, and house. That’s just part of being human: caring about relative status. But we all know from a lot of research that making social comparisons can be harmful to us emotionally, and advertising prompts us to measure ourselves towards others. If I see an ad for a fancy new car, it makes me concentrate on my typical one, which can make me feel bad.

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If I see this $10,000 watch and then look at my watch, which I likely paid about $150 for, I might think, “Maybe there’s anything wrong with me. ” And of course nations are just agglomerations of people. Now, in this paper we don’t prove that the dissatisfaction is coming from relative comparisons, but we suspect that’s what going down. Yes, some might see that watch ad and say, “Why are men buying $10,000 watches when they bring a cellphone with the time on it?” Or respond to a car ad by congratulating themselves for not buying a gas guzzler that’s costly to provider and destroys the environment. Our research shows that the really big impacts on human happiness are such things as health, intimate relationships, being hired, social safety nets, not being in midlife there really is a crisis for lots, and so forth. Buying that watch or car can help make us feel slightly happier, but deep down it has a maintaining with the Joneses status effect.

And when every person buys an analogous thing the effect is nullified. That’s partly why advertising hurts group happiness; there’s only rather a lot status to go around.