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Buying Happiness

February 20, 2011

'I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist' Tammy Faye Barker. 'I love new clothes. If everyone could just wear new clothes every day, I reckon depression wouldn't exist anymore'. Sophie Kinsella (Confessions of a Shopaholic)

The above image is what I have to see every time I go food shopping. Sitting in the window of an empty shop in the Cameron Toll shopping centre, vapid quotations about the importance of shopping screaming out in brilliant colours, inspiring customers to spend more and more money.

This isn’t new – every major shopping centre advertises the importance of its social function in similar terms, but this window display draws attention to a particularly insidious aspect of consumer culture. In contrast to the old adage, we are repeatedly told that money CAN buy happiness. Indeed, as these quotations suggest, constant consumption is a prerequisite for good mental health. Implicit in the Sophie Kinsell’s comment is the idea that, if you CAN’T afford new clothes at all, you are almost guaranteed to be  depressed – or at the very least that people suffering from clinical depression are to blame for their inferior consumption habits.

Clothes are the most obvious demonstration of this, since clothes are how we advertise ourselves to others in a consumer society. Signifying our personality, our income, our shopping habits, our interests, clothes provide an index of the self, a code that is read involuntarily by other members of society. Wear the wrong clothes, too old, too shabby, ‘unfashionable’, and you will be judged by society as inferior, failing in your major function as a consumer.

This tendency is particularly insidious at a time when the UK government has set its sights on ‘curing’ 1 million people suffering from mental illnesses while simultaneously working to reduce the welfare budget through badly researched and potentially harmful proposals. (see my previous posts on the topic for more info). Sue Marsh has drawn attention to the flawed nature of Nick Clegg’s proposals, but the constant connections drawn in advertising between happiness and consumption draw attention to another problem.

When benefits like DLA get cut, those who are some of the most vulnerable to mental illnesses, and those who already suffer from them, have their purchasing power reduced. This does not just mean that they ‘deserve’ to be ill in the terms of consumer capitalism (after all, how can one be happy without spending all one’s money on clothes and electronics?), but also that they are daily confronted with material reminding them of this failure.

Imagine suffering from severe depression, dragging yourself out of bed with a huge effort to go shopping (a major achievement), and being confronted with the above widow display. You have been relegated to JSA after an ATOS assessment, and barely have the money to pay the rent and buy food, let alone buy new clothes. Even if you, rationally, realise that the claims of consumer culture are lies, depression will pounce on this evidence of a failure, and convince you that your illness is of your own making.

It’s fairly clear that shopping isn’t any kind of solution to mental illness, despite the way in which the phrase ‘retail therapy’ (initially coined as a pejorative) has been claimed as a true solution to the minor mood fluctuations of the psychologically healthy. However, if the rate with with a twitter search for ‘retail therapy’ refreshes, or the 3,370,000 Google results are anything to go by, this knowledge is far from common. Until we examine the link between capital and mental illness, and work to break this link, any initiative to improve mental health will be limited in scope.

EDIT: As a reader identified yesterday, the idea that shopping can solve mental health problems also trivialises these illnesses, turning public opinion against those who claim welfare for mental health reasons.

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