It’s the million-dollar question. Can you want what you already have?
I watched a TED talk this week that discussed the relationship between love and desire. Psychologist Esther Perel argued that modern relationships face difficulties because love and desire are in direct opposition with one another. Where love is about having, desire is about wanting. Desire is excitement, mystery, adventure and risk. Love, on the other hand, is driven by the very ingredients that stifle desire; dependence, reciprocity, security, predictability, permanence and protection. According to Perel, the secret behind leading a healthy, passionate relationship is about learning how to reconcile these two conflicting human needs.
Watching this made me think about desire in a broader sense. Desire is about wanting something you don’t have because it looks attractive from a distance. Not only is it a part of modern relationships, but desire pervades modern-day society too.
As individuals within a capitalist society, we are constantly bombarded with adverts, billboards, TV shows, music videos and infomercials telling us that what we already have is not enough and convincing us to chase after the next consumer product. Did you really need to upgrade to the latest iPhone 5?
It’s difficult to draw a line between desire and necessity because we all use a different yardstick to measure success. I’ve often heard friends say things like, “I’ll know I will have made it when I can afford to buy a Chanel purse” or “As soon as I get my hands on an Aston Martin I’ll be happy.” But shouldn’t the primary driving force behind success be a sense of personal achievement rather than indulgence in material goods?
If material goods become symbolic of success, then happiness will always be comparative. That is, people will only be happy if they have the latest products and will look to what other people own to determine their self-satisfaction. You’ll always want the next big thing or compare what you have to everyone else.
Such ideas connect with what Karl Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’ in the mid-nineteenth century. Marx professed that commodities accumulate self-sustaining exchange value that encourages consumers to evaluate goods based on the status they represent, rather than their use value. Consumers stop judging products based on practicalities and start looking at branding and status instead. Following Marxism to its farthest conclusions, Marx argued that consumers themselves become commodified by desire, valued only as producers and purchasers within an economic system.
Although many would argue that such a theory is confined to a dark and dusty corner of history, I think that many of Marx’s points have value (excuse the pun) in modern society. We are at risk of becoming defined by what we buy and what we wear rather than staying grounded in our sense of ourselves in the first place.
An enormous factor that makes it difficult to want what we already have in modern society is the media. Rather than creating products that have use value, the media invents problems in order to create desire. Take, for example, the cosmetics industry. The ideal consumer recognizes a new desire to conform to societal standards of beauty, and invests in products that are supposed to eradicate the ‘unwanted’- whether it’s wrinkles, body fat or grey hair. Women of the 21st century are brought up to believe that they are projects for perfecting, rather than naturally beautiful, strong and worthy women and girls.
I saw a Facebook meme recently that read: “If tomorrow, women woke up and liked their bodies, imagine how many industries would go out of business.” But I find this to be a severely rose-tinted view of the relationship between women and the media. It suggests that women have inherent bodily insecurities that the media has learned how to exploit. Instead, I think the meme should read, “If the modern media and cosmetic industries had never existed, imagine how many women would like their bodies.”
Whether it’s accommodating for passion in modern relationships, investment in consumer goods, or the pursuit of the ‘perfect body’, the chase after desire has an undoubtedly large part to play in the modern world. Perhaps the answer to the million-dollar question is one of moderation. It’s OK if consumer products are part of the reward- but don’t let the never-ending chase after desire let you lose sight of your end goal.