The Christmas season is once again upon us and with it overwhelming encouragement from Madison Avenue to spend what we have not earned to buy what we cannot afford. The day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday (indicating the point at which retailers are in the black — or at least hope to be), signaled the start of the “holiday shopping season.” That phrase in and of itself reveals the commercialized emphasis that has unfortunately come to define Christmas for many Americans.

The thrust of this consumerist message is that the holiday is best enjoyed or most fully realized through the acquisition of “things.” Advertisements bombard us with images of bountiful Christmas scenes in which beautiful packages surround the tree, and “happiness” is realized upon the receipt of this or that consumer product. Credit card issuers alone (those most interested in seeing you spend what you don’t have) spend more than $150 million on holiday advertising and promotions. Evidence that these messages work is found in the fact that, according to financial advisor Dave Ramsey, “over 50 percent of Christmas shoppers will spend well over what they planned to and will go further into debt.”

As to the severity of this debt, Ramsey points out that “more than $70 billion, over half of what was charged last year, ended up as revolving debt and the interest on last year’s gifts are still being paid today.” On average, “two-thirds (65 percent) of shoppers overspent their budget by $100–$500 and 75 percent overspent by $50–$100.”

Of course this consumerist philosophy — rooted in the notion that making more money, which enables you to buy more things, will necessarily result in greater life satisfaction and happiness — is a pervasive message year-round in America. Recent studies show that most Americans believe they would be “perfectly happy” with just 20 percent more income. And according to Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor’s 1998 best seller The Overspent American, “one-quarter of Americans making $100,000 believe they don’t have enough cash.” (In 2010, the US median income was $49,445.)

However, renowned economist and USC professor, Richard Easterlin observed that “once a society’s basic needs — food, shelter, employment — are satisfied, the accumulation of greater and greater wealth does not generate greater collective or personal happiness over the long run” (USC Trojan Family Magazine). This has become known as the Easterlin Paradox.

In the early seventies “Easterlin sifted through numerous surveys asking Americans how happy they were. The explosion in wealth created by the postwar boom had not made a dent, he discovered. Although the average family was 60 percent richer in 1974, levels of contentment remained unchanged from 1945.” These findings “flew in the face of the assumption held by most economists and politicians that populations get happier as national wealth increases.” Also according to the article “today, no one disputes the truth of the Easterlin Paradox.”

Despite our present economic challenges, the United States is still far richer in 2011 than it was 1974 and yet our levels of life satisfaction and personal contentment haven’t improved one iota. In fact, every measurement of personal well being — psychological, emotional, and spiritual — demonstrates that despite our increased abundance we are less satisfied and more depressed than ever. 

A joint study recently conducted by the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School revealed that the US has the highest rate of depression among a survey group of fourteen countries. Conversely the poorest nations reported the lowest levels of depression. Researchers suggest that this may be due to differing expectations. Precisely! Americans — saturated with consumerism — have been conditioned to expect that happiness and satisfaction naturally flow from prosperity and the acquisition of things. That is the whole point of consumer advertising: to make you discontent with what you have by offering the expectation of an improved life through the purchase of the latest product — an expectation that very quickly evaporates after we have purchased said product.