How to combat mindless consumerism

On a random Wednesday last month, I was so excited to go to the San Diego Zoo BY MYSELF that I practically kicked my kindergartner and his big brother out of the car at school drop off.

The San Diego Zoo is expansive and I couldn’t wait to meander, saunter, and amble my way through it, stopping to look at whatever struck my fancy, without worrying about two boys arguing over which animal to see next or needing to get anyone a snack.

The day was mine! Or at least, the hours between 9 and 2. And my zoo outing did not disappoint: I watched a sloth stick his tongue out at me, saw the baboons mess around, sat peacefully in the aviary, and met the baby hippo.

What struck me the most, though, was what I witnessed in the Australian Outback section. It was feeding time for the koalas. Most munched lazily in their trees, except for one particular fellow. This koala climbed down from his tree limb, walked to the metal door, and banged on it with both of his front paws.

The zoo volunteer in a red shirt chuckled behind me. She said: “A worker just came through with three different branches of fresh young leaves for lunch but this koala was not pleased with the day’s offerings!

The koala banged on the door again, and I laughed at his little tantrum. If only he knew how easy his life is at the zoo! He never has to forage for his own food, never has to find more water. It’s quite possible he was born in captivity and so has no alternative life to compare his current circumstances to. He’s been provided for every day of his life and so is entitled rather than grateful.

It’s easy to draw a comparison between the entitled koala and our entitled children. Anyone who has ever made a meal at dinnertime only for it to be rejected by a toddler can see the similarities. But what about our own hearts? Do we, too, fall into the trap of wanting more and better stuff?

We are bombarded with messages everyday telling us that we will be prettier, smarter, and happier if we just buy the next thing. The self-care industry alone is a booming 10 billion dollar business convincing us to spend 22% of our disposable income to “treat ourselves.” Many times, I’ve been guilty of opening my closet only to frown in dissatisfaction at “the day’s offerings.” And the Christmas season amplifies our discontent by promising happiness wrapped up beneath a tree. Sixty percent of us spend money on ourselves during Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Deep down, we all have an inner koala bear banging around, demanding better stuff. We can cater to it, give in to our own desires for more, chasing happiness in the form of The Next Best Thing, or we can enjoy what we’ve already been given, choosing to be grateful for the blessings all around us.

If you want to train your eyes to see God’s goodness all around you, if you want to avoid falling into the cycle of endless consumerism, here are a few suggestions:

How to combat mindless consumerism

Keep a gratitude journal. Nothing fancy, just a place to keep an ongoing list of things to be thankful for. This practice of writing down what we’re grateful for will train us to see the blessings all around us – big and small. Make a point to write in it every day – nothing is too trivial to record – from sleeping in, to getting the best parking spot, to enjoying dinner as a family…. it all counts!

Avoid commercials. Reducing our exposure to consumerist messages is another good way to fight our own impulses to buy more. Choose to watch TV on Netflix or Hulu Plus (where there are no commercials.) Limit scrolling on social media, as Instagram and Facebook bombard us with ads, and influencers tell us what to want.

Give back to help others. This may seem like counterintuitive advice, but there is much evidence to suggest that giving is good for the giver. When we help others, give gifts, or engage in similar altruistic behaviors, we benefit too! Studies have shown that the regions of our brain associated with pleasure and connection are activated when we give back. Saint Francis of Assissi was right in saying “For it is in giving that we receive.”

Spend time and energy doing what you love. The best things in life are free. The moments that bring joy, meaning, and connection don’t have a price tag. Conversations with friends, time spent with family, making space to rest and reflect can all bring deep contentment. When we start to feel that hunger for more, that longing for better stuff, we will be better served to turn towards soul-filling activities, whatever that may look like. May our discontent drive us to invest in the relationships we have with those around us instead of accumulating more pretty things.

Better yet, may we treat our desire to buy bigger and better things as an invitation to spend time with the only One who can truly satisfy our hungry souls.

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Sarah K. Butterfield is an author, speaker, and ministry leader who has a heart for empowering women to grow in their faith and be intentional with their time. She and her husband and two boys live in San Diego, where she writes about pursuing a deeper relationship with God in the midst of motherhood.

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