What do you consume? While your mind might jump to the appropriate balance of burgers vs. kale, coconut water vs. margaritas, and kettle-cooked chips vs. gluten-free veggie crisps, consumption is about much more than just food and beverages. What is the quality of the air you inhale? What news and articles do you choose to browse? What does your social media feed contain? What games and entertainment tend to draw you in your free time? What are the overall vibes of the environments you spend time in? What real-world activities and experiences do you engage? What brands do you surround yourself with?
Consumption also isn’t just about “what” you use – it’s about how you use it. What does it generate for you and for others? Taking in resources is a necessary part of living, and how those resources are used goes a long way towards shaping your experience of life.
A Brief History of Perspectives of Consumption
Some of the first recorded reflections on consumption happened in ancient Greece. The famous philosopher Aristotle acknowledged its necessity for both individual and societal life, but emphasized that it be done in moderation and with a sense of purpose. He called out the connection between consumption and pleasure, warned of the dangers that could arise if consumption went unchecked, and guided individuals to establish some degree of self-control in order to enable them to reach their highest potential. He argued that consumption should be engaged when it creates true value for the consumer, and that consideration should be given to the broader effects on the environment.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the focus on consumption was in relation to societal structure. On one hand, Adam Smith argued that the pursuit of self-interest and the ability to consume goods and services drives economic growth and prosperity, based on the underlying assumption that people will naturally engage in activities in ways that are productive for society as a whole. On the other hand, Karl Marx criticized individual consumption in relation to its societal outcomes, claiming that the drive for profit leads to the exploitation of workers and the reinforcement of separation between the ruling class and the working class. The solution he offered was socialism, in which activity is managed more from a collective perspective rather than as an aggregation of individual perspectives.
In the 20th century, philosophers like Jean Baudrillard began discussing consumption as a central component of culture and social status. In other words, food, clothing, and other essential goods and services take on a more symbolic nature, and individuals seek the images and concepts that are marketed to them in ways that cause them to lose track of what they require to live. As a result, consumers lack sensitivity and awareness about their decisions and are more easily manipulated.
Today, common news topics related to consumption include environmental sustainability (carbon footprint, renewable energy, etc.) and working conditions for those who create products. Celebrities from Leonardo DiCaprio to Beyonce to Gisele to Oprah have spoken out to encourage people to be more conscious of their consumption decisions. In general, there has been an increasing focus on being mindful about the downstream effects of one's individual consumption, and of consumption at a collective level.
Going Deeper on Consumption
Consumption, at its core, is about “use” of a resource, whether that resource is a mineral, air, food, someone else's time and energy, or anything else. In a general sense, what resources are you using? Towards what ends are they being used? What is the quality of your state of being while you are doing the using?
As a busy parent, it can be easy to get disproportionately focused on the items you need to check off your to-do list at the expense of your presence in relation to the resources you are consuming. When that happens, an imbalance can be created that results in less internal joy. Life starts to be lived through the lens of "needing to get things done," when what's really needed is to practice greater mindfulness and gratitude for the resources that are enabling life to be lived.
In a sense, it can be beneficial to have a part of you that is permanently aware of what you are consuming, and a great way to do this is to breathe through your nose and deepen your attention of each breath. Take time throughout your day to purposefully check in on where you are through the lens of what you are consuming, and you will give yourself the space needed to make adjustments that lead you to a more lively state of being.
Stories about Using Resources Well
Consumption has been a core part of the human experience for as long as the species has existed, so it is no surprise that there are famous stories from many different cultures and traditions that teach lessons about using resources well. Aesop contributed several memorable stories on his own, and others have shared valuable insights as well. Below are a few examples:
Story: "The Ant and the Grasshopper"
Insights: it is always wise to plan for the future and to be prepared for lean times. The ant works hard to store food for the winter, while the grasshopper plays and does not anticipate all the possibilities that can materialize.
Story: "The Tortoise and the Hare"
Insights: Develop an understanding of timing that allows you to consume resources in a patient and productive manner. The hare is overconfident and wastes time showing off, while the tortoise steadily makes progress and ultimately wins the race.
Story: "The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs"
Insights: Monitor the temptation to take more than you need. A farmer killed the goose that laid golden eggs because he wanted more, and he ultimately wound up with nothing.
Story: "The Lotus Eaters" by Homer
Insights: Consuming for the purpose of pleasure or indulgence can distract you from motivations that are more authentically meaningful. This story from "The Odyssey" describes the plight of certain crew members who become addicted to eating the lotus plant and lose interest in returning home.
Story: "The Pearl" by John Steinbeck
Insights: An excessive focus on materialism can lead to a reduction in well-being. This novel tells the story of a poor Mexican diver who discovers a valuable pearl, which seems to be a blessing at first, but which ultimately brings trouble as it becomes the object of desire for many people and leads to the diver's downfall.
Story: "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Insights: Temptation and desires that are not rooted in the greater good can draw one to dark places. This novel is set in the 1920s and tells the story of the wealthy Jay Gatsby and his obsession with winning back his former love, Daisy.
Consumption, when not managed well, can lead to a variety of habits and sentiments that are not supportive to one’s overall well-being. It is critical to stay watchful of one’s mind and to scrutinize the “reasons” that one is giving oneself for making certain consumption choices.
Benefits of Mindful Consumption
There is a growing body of research that suggests that paying attention to one's consumption can have a number of benefits. This is not surprising. What you choose to take in, your underlying intentions for that choice, your awareness while doing so, and the ultimate results of your action go a long way to determining your quality of experience.
First, people who are mindful of their consumption tend to be more satisfied with their lives and have higher levels of well-being. This is because paying attention to what one consumes can help individuals to make more intentional and fulfilling choices, rather than simply responding to external cues.
Second, they are better able to resist the influence of advertising and marketing, and are less likely to make impulsive or unnecessary purchases. There is greater awareness of, and purpose in relation to, the consumption choices that one makes.
Third, people who are mindful of their consumption are more likely to make environmentally sustainable choices, such as choosing products with less packaging, buying locally-sourced products, and reducing their overall use of resources. These decisions are indicative of those who value the space they occupy and treat it with respect, qualities that contribute to an overall energetic “upliftment.”
Fourth, mindful consumption can help people to better manage their money and spend more wisely, as they become more aware of their habits and can make more informed decisions about their financial resources.
Fifth, and perhaps most straightforward, paying attention to one's consumption can also have physical health benefits, as it can encourage people to make healthier food choices and reduce their overall intake of unhealthy substances.
These insights suggest that paying attention to one's consumption can lead to more intentional choices, greater well-being, and better environmental and social outcomes.
All of the above is great context for opening the mind up to the different aspects of consumption, but what matters most about any type of consumption – including reading this blog – is what benefits it ultimately generates. So, practically, what can you do to develop greater clarity and purpose in relation to your consumption decisions? Below are some tips:
1) Broadly examine the landscape of what you are consuming: everything from the food and beverages you are ingesting to the air you are breathing to the digital content you are engaging to the environments in which you are spending time to the brands with which you associate. Take some time to reflect on the choices you are making each day, and what is ultimately driving them. Which ones cause a dissonance inside you, in the sense that part of you is not at harmony with them?
2) Tune in to the feedback your body is providing in relation to those choices. Which ones are causing you to feel more alive and energized? Which ones are generating results that are not of the highest quality, for you and for others? Become more sensitive to what you are feeling outside of your mind, and allow that to carry weight with your future decisions.
3) Buy an air purifier, dust often, and eliminate anything that causes unclean smells. The air you breathe fuels your existence, and it is worth ensuring it is of the highest quality.
4) Keep your car clean. Don’t let garbage or paraphernalia accumulate. Open your windows regularly to clear the air.
5) Identify experiences and activities that are healing and re-energizing for you. Reorganize your days to spend more time consuming them and less time consuming other things which are less beneficial for your well-being.
6) To a higher degree, eat and drink what you know is good for you. Build the muscle of looking out for your best interest over satisfying short-term impulses.
You can take responsibility for your consumption habits, and you can adapt them to drive increasingly health and beneficial outcomes. Good luck!
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