Against the Pursuit of Happiness
- At 27 May 2006
- medium Opinion
Against the Pursuit of Happiness
A talk to the Sydney Writers’ Festival, 27th May 2006
Prader-Willi syndrome is a genetic disorder of children characterised by, among other
things, an insatiable appetite, leading its sufferers to seek out food by almost any means.
Because the mechanism in the brain that signals satiation does not function, no matter how
much they eat those with Prader-Willi syndrome always feel that they must have more.
The overwhelming urge to eat can be controlled only by determined efforts to prevent
sufferers from gaining access to food, including putting locks on the fridge.
There is an obvious parallel with modern consumerism in which the mechanism that
signals to consumers that they have enough seems to have broken. No matter how much
people consume they always feel they need more. This manifests itself in many ways, but
one of them, for me at least, stands out. This is the fact that many people in affluent
countries have broken the connection between acquiring consumer goods and satisfying
some desire, and now buy things without ever actually consuming them. A recent survey
has revealed the extent of wasteful consumption in Australia and our attitudes to spending
money on things we never use. Virtually all Australians admit to wasting money by
buying things they never use—food, clothes, shoes, CDs, books, exercise bikes,
cosmetics, blenders, and much more. Although nearly two-thirds of Australians say they
cannot afford to buy everything they really need, they admit to spending a total of $10.8
billion every year on goods they do not use. That is an average of $1250 for each
The escalating desire for more is the defining characteristic of our age. In his latest novel,
Michel Houellebecq − dubbed, quite rightly, “one of the few novelists working in any
language who properly understands the tensions of the present age” 2 − looked back from
To increase desires to an unbearable level whilst making the fulfilment of them
more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle upon which Western
society was based. 3
In a department store not long ago I overhead the following snippet of conversation
between a mother and her daughter, aged about 20.
The mother asked: “Is there anything you need?” “No”, the daughter replied.
“Is there anything you want?”, the mother asked. “No”, said the daughter.
“But”, the mother insisted, “there must be!”
As I walked on past the displays of business shirts I asked myself why there must be
something she could buy for her daughter. What the mother was really saying was: “There
must be some way I can express my affection for you in this shop”. Shopping in a
department store is one way we show our affection nowadays.
Shopping serves a number of other functions that have nothing to do with the usefulness
of the goods we buy. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon known as the
‘democratisation of luxury’. The distinction between ordinary goods consumed by the
masses and luxury goods consumed by the wealthy minority has broken down so that the
general population now emulates the spending and consumption habits of the wealthy. Thus prestige brands and luxury styles of particular goods are marketed to the general
consumer, a phenomenon known by the ugly term ‘massclusivity’.
In an affluent society dominated by a marketing culture, consumption is no longer about
satisfying our needs but creating a sense of self. The marketers understand this far better
than we do. In the words of the founder of a UK-based advertising agency:
With prestige labels, we aim to relate the brand in some way to people’s
aspirations, or the way they would like to live their life, or be perceived in life. 4
Television and magazines play a crucial role in this process of providing personal
identities that people can adopt. The wider message of advertising is to communicate that
opulence is normal and attainable. As House & Garden magazine declared: “What was
once considered extravagance is now considered the norm”.
For example, Australians are not satisfied with standard household appliances but demand
high-quality professional ones. Instead of a standard gas or electric stove, kitchens are
adorned with ovens with six cooking functions, turbo grills, touch controls, triple-glazed
doors and the ability to defrost food before cooking it.
As we observed in Affluenza, increasingly, the kitchen in the home is being duplicated by
super barbeques promoted as the ‘kitchen outdoors’. [OVERHEAD] While a barbeque in
the 1980s was typically assembled at home from 150 bricks, a hot plate and a wood
storage area, in 1998 the top of the line model cost $2,000. Today the ‘Turbo
Cosmopolitan’ at Barbeques Galore, described as ‘Australia’s most prestigious gourmet
outdoor entertainment system’, sells for $4,990. Made of vitreous enamel, it boasts
electronic multi-spark ignition in each of six burners, deluxe cast iron plates and a dual
glass window roasting hood. It can roast, smoke, bake and grill. However, even the Turbo
Cosmopolitan has been superseded by the Grand Turbo, the main features of which are an
infrared rotisserie rear burner and a price tag of $6,990. An advertisement for the Rinnai
‘Monaco Outdoor Kitchen’ (retail price $2,399) declares: ‘I love the look on the
neighbours’ face when I roll out the Rinnai’. Australians today can spend more on a set of
tongs for the barbeque than they spent on the barbeque itself in 1970.
So, although ordinary citizens have always eyed and envied the rich, in affluent countries
in the past two decades a qualitative change has occurred in the relationship. In his book
Luxury Fever Robert Frank notes that spending on luxury goods in the United States had
been growing four times faster than spending overall. The ‘new luxury’ market is said to
be increasing by 10–15 per cent a year, far outpacing the growth of the economy in
general. This is reflected in booming sales of luxury travel, luxury cars, pleasure craft,
cosmetic surgery, trophy homes, holiday homes and professional-quality home appliances.
The ‘democratisation of luxury’ has undermined the positional signalling of many goods
previously reserved for the very rich—a trend due partly to rising incomes and partly to
the marketing strategies of the makers of luxury brands, which include the introduction of
entry-level products in order to increase market share. The argument is made pithily in a
2004 advertisement for a car. [OVERHEAD] Next to the bold declaration ‘LUXURY
HAS ITS PRICE. (How does $39 990 sound?)’, it states, ‘There was a time when luxury
was a different thing, stuffy, old and unaffordable. That time has gone …’ Luxury car
maker BMW now sells its Series 1 for prices as low as $37,900. [OVERHEAD]
Today’s consumer is not just sold products but persuaded over and over that spending
money is an effective means to relieve them of their anxieties, self-doubt and the drudgery
of their lives. The term retail therapy has entered the lexicon and reveals a great deal about
the psychological function of shopping. Shopping is accepted as an antidote to the daily
stresses of life. The ad for a new shopping centre in Sydney captures the zeitgeist. “If it
makes you happy, it’s a bargain.” [OVERHEAD]
The democratisation of luxury means that consumerism today is radically different to that
of the past. Universities in Europe are now offering masters degrees in luxury goods
management. 5 A one-year course costs around $20,000 and includes an internship in a
luxury boutique. More sophisticated training is needed not least because these days it is
more difficult to identify the typical luxury goods customer. Many luxury brands now
offer entry-level products to entice ordinary punters into a taste of the world of luxury. As
one graduate of these course, now in the business of marketing luxury goods, observed:
“brands sell dreams”. The customer knows that “you may have a product that costs €50 to
produce but can retial at €700 … but the power of the brand is the overriding factor that
makes that client part with their cash”. 6 (Perhaps understandably, he adds: “I try not to
think too much about the value and costs of products”.)
For some, brands sell dreams. But why stop there? According to the editor of a luxury
magazine, “luxury is about soul”, because “it denotes the kind of person you are and what
resonates with you”. 7 Conveniently, Jesus was wrong: we can gain the whole world without losing our souls. In fact, according to some evangelical Christian churches,
chasing luxury may be the way to salvation.
Unlike the political defenders of the market and so-called ‘free choice’ by consumers, the
advertisers and marketers are much more sanguine about the way they manipulate
consumers into doing things they don’t want to do. In an analysis of the growth of luxury
goods markets, the Financial Review noted last year that the boom reflects not so much
the growth in prosperity but “the stress and isolation of modern life”.8 The head of
planning at the advertising agency Grey Worldwide said:
Most people don’t have a sense of self-worth. Buying luxury goods makes us feel
special and successful. They make us feel valuable in a world that often tests our
sense of self-worth.
The chief strategist at Young & Rubicam agrees, saying that insecurity and overwork are
fuelling the growth in sales of luxury goods. It is generally accepted in the advertising
world that people want to “reward themselves” for working longer and harder.This process of investing products with desirable features has reached absurd levels.
[OVERHEAD] For example, you may have seen glossy ads for the Hitachi plasma screen
TV which comes with a “remote Power Swivel Stand [that] allows you to adjust the screen
30º either direction of centre from the comfort of your chair”. Explain that to me. Is this
what civilisation in Australia has come to?
[OVERHEAD] Another new product now being heavily marketed is a new type of
toothbrush which, we are told, uses ‘sonic waves’ to make our teeth cleaner than ever
before. “It’s an entirely new type of cleaning technology”, the ad proclaims. “Triple sonic
waves move criss-cross bristles 500 times per second.” Sometimes when I look at these
ads I think I must have stumbled into a French theatre of the absurd in which the object is
to ridicule the most ludicrous product.
For me the most disturbing aspect of the social transformation we have undergone over
the last two decades has been not so much the proliferation of deceptive and manipulative
advertising and marketing, but the penetration of market values into areas of social life
where they simply do not belong. This takes a physical form with the proliferation of
shops and shopping centres. I flew to Adelaide last month and when I stepped off the
plane I though that by mistake we had landed at a shopping mall. Then I remembered that
airport owners had realised that commuters spend a lot of time waiting around in airports.
The natural response is for people to shop or to engage in what is now called
Children are developmentally incapable of distinguishing facts from deceptive and
manipulative advertising. Childhood has become a ‘marketing free-fire zone’, and the
lounge room is the kindergarten of consumerism. Children now grow up in a thick fog of
commercial messages which conditions their understanding of the world and themselves.
Indeed, advertisers now set out to teach children to manipulate their parents.
Attention has now moved to pre-schoolers—known as ‘tinys’ in the world of marketing.
Marketers target tinys because they know that three-year-olds have considerable pester
power, especially with parents who find it difficult to set clear rules. We now know that
children as young as six months begin to form images of corporate logos. A recent British
study found that for one in four children the first recognisable word they utter is a brand
name.9 Babies too young to walk and talk are not too young to be imprinted with
There has, of course, been a massive increase in spending on ads aimed at tweens, those
aged 8-14 who influence a large portion of family spending in addition to their own direct
spending. By the time they finish their teens, most young people have become so saturated
with the messages of consumerism that they are incapable of understanding what their
needs and preferences are. They have been formed by the market in the most systematic
and effective experiment in brainwashing ever undertaken.
A media company has recently launched a magazine titled Famous targeted at women
aged 18 to 34. [OVERHEAD] The publisher has identified the core reader of the magazine
as a 24-year old “self-obsessed shopaholic who lives a fast-paced life and whose interests
revolve around celebrity, retail therapy and gossip”.10 In other words, a brainless git with
Perhaps the most disquieting consequence of modern consumerism is the way it corrupts
values. In short, market values have increasingly colonised all other values, so that ethical
decisions have become economic decisions, despite a nagging feeling that putting a price
on some things actually devalues them. Even the most intimate and precious aspects of
being human have been subtly transformed into their antithesis. Becoming a parent used to
be something we did because it was part of the human condition; now it is a ‘lifestyle
choice’. The consumer approach to parenthood is reinforced by studies such as a recent
one by AMP and NATSEM that calculated that the average Australian family is likely to
spend about $448,000 (in real terms) raising two children from birth to age 20. This
encourages a cost–benefit approach to fertility in which prospective parents ask
themselves: ‘How much will it set us back if we have a baby?’ In a half-jocular way we
characterised this situation in Affluenza as ‘the beamer or the baby’, but the jocular half
disappeared when I saw a magazine ad for a Porsche with the tag line [OVERHEAD]
Porsche’s new baby.
An excellent reason to delay yours.
It is sometimes said that there is nothing new in recent critiques of consumerism. This is
quite wrong. In fact, the world of consumer capitalism in which we now live is radically
different from all past eras. Never before have the values of consumerism so dominated a
society; never before has materialism as the path to happiness been so widely accepted;
never before have the values of the market penetrated so deeply into areas of social and
private life; and never before has the culture so inter-penetrated with messages of
The marketers seem to understand the desperation of the modern demand for happiness.
It’s a bleak vision shared by Houellebecq:
To any impartial observer it appears that the human individual cannot be happy,
and is in no way conceived for happiness, and his only possible destiny is to spread
unhappiness around him by making other people’s existence as intolerable as his
own − his first victims generally being his parents.11
If this seems a little overstated, perhaps it nevertheless describes the place we are heading
to. After all, a number of psychological studies have shown that materialistic people are
prone to making both themselves and those around them less happy. The evidence is
reviewed by US psychologist Tim Kasser: ‘Individuals oriented towards materialistic,
extrinsic goals are more likely to experience lower quality of life than individuals oriented
toward intrinsic goals’. Not only are those with extrinsic orientation in life less happy than
those with intrinsic goals; they make others less happy too. Materialistic people “have
shorter, more conflictual, and more competitive relationships with others, thus impacting
the quality of life of those around them”.
Individualisation and the modern self
The possibilities for personal freedom today seem to be unprecedented. Before the
liberation movements of the 60s and 70s the opportunities for most people were severely
constrained by the circumstances of their birth − their gender, their ethnic origins and their
social class. The idea that we can each map out our own life course is the quintessential
product of the liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, whose aim was above all to
destroy those social expectations, norms and constraints that prevented individuals from
living their lives as they wanted to.
In place of societies in which people form their sense of self by unconsciously absorbing
the cultural norms and behaviours of those around them, living in largely homogeneous
neighbourhoods and communities, we live in an era of “individualisation”.
refers to the requirement to create one’s own self, to “write one’s own biography” instead
of having it more or less drafted by the circumstances of one’s birth. While the gains
should not be decried, it must be admitted that the freedom we now enjoy has become a
burden. Signs of this are everywhere.
There is little doubt that the psychological wellbeing of people in rich countries is in
decline. We are seeing the spread of a suite of psychological disorders ranging from
depression, anxiety and compulsive behaviours. Possibly the most telling evidence is the
very high prevalence of depression in rich countries. In the US the incidence has increased
ten-fold since the Second World War. Modern Australians appear so beset by anxiety,
depression and alienation that they consume enormous quantities of drugs and other
substances to help them make it through the day. At any one time, 13 per cent of
Australian adults admit they experience high or very high levels of psychological distress,
while an additional 23 per cent report moderate levels
13 and in a 2002 survey no less than
18 per cent of Australian adults − nearly one in five − reported that in the preceding two
weeks they had taken medication to improve their mental wellbeing.14
Although the usual figures cited refer to clinically identifiable psychological disorders, I
think there is a much more pervasive phenomenon, a widespread but ill-defined anomie or
perhaps what Buddhists might refer to as discontented mind.
The emergence of the self-help industry is aimed at lightening the burden; yet the message
it sends may take us a step back rather than a step forward. The title of Stephanie
Dowrick’s recent book, Choosing Happiness, is emblematic of the age. With section
headings such as ‘Trust who you are’, ‘Trust yourself as a source of happiness’ and ‘You
are responsible for your own happiness’, it promises that however we find ourselves −
whether unfulfilled in our work, trapped in an unsatisfying relationship, beset by the
endless irritations of modern life or struggling with anxiety − we can be happier through
our own choices. Unhappiness, we are told, arises because we lack the ‘skills’ to be happy.
While self-help books remind us over and over that we are responsible for our own
happiness, is it not true that our parents, families, friends, communities and governments
also have some responsibility for our happiness? I think the books such as Dowrick’s
serve to validate the self-focused individualism of modern life. They reflect the downside
of self-determination − the relentless emphasis on the self.
The ephemeral self
All of this calls into question the very notion of the self that we now cling to so firmly.
The new imperative to look after the self before all else arises in a society saturated by the
outpourings of the mass media, in which the symbols of achievement and the characters
worthy of emulation appear on the screen and the magazine pages rather than in the local
community or in handed-down stories of the saintly and heroic. Whether individualisation
is a blessing or a curse − whether it means the final step to personal freedom or being set
adrift from all that is solid − is not the point; the point is that fixity can no longer be
assumed, that personal relationships and connections to social groups are always
contingent, that individuals must now scan the world to decide with whom or what they
wish to identify.
But if we cannot construct an identity from the raw materials provided by our
communities and cultural heritage, from what can we build it? Into this breach have
stepped the marketers of modern consumerism. Increasingly, it is to the market, to the
brands and the lifestyles attached to them, that people turn in order to create themselves −
not to their communities, clubs or unions. In this world it is consumption, typified in the
shopping experience, that becomes the characteristic act. The identities that can be forged
out of the products provided by the market are not to any great degree the creations of
those who adopt them, but are rather manufactured by “popular culture” and thus
controlled and co-opted by marketing. Thus the individuality of the marketing society is a
pseudo-individuality, as if there were an invisible hand guiding the pen that each of us
takes up to write our biography.
If we construct ourself from consumer goods we are faced with the problem that consumer
identities very quickly become stale and unsatisfying. So we must renew ourselves
repeatedly. I suspect that this is the first time humans have taken such a cavalier approach
to their selves. While once life was conceived as a process of gradually knowing one’s
self, today the self has so little substance that it can hardly be grasped. One of the demands
of the women’s movement was that women, when they marry, should not be asked to
discard the name and thus the identity they grew up with. Some have interpreted the more
recent trend among young women to change their names to those of their husbands as a
reversal of feminism’s hard-won gains. But I think it reflects not so much a subjugation of
the female self, but the abandonment of idea of a self altogether, and the substitution of a
constantly evolving persona. Mia Freedman, the editor-in-chief of Cosmo, Cleo and Dolly
magazines, who gets paid to have her finger on the pulse, has said of the trend among
younger women to adopt their new husband’s surname: “It’s not a feminist issue: it’s a
make-over issue. We simply like to re-invent. Changing your name can be a bit like
having your hair cut after a break-up: new chapter, new me”.15
Martin Seligman writes of the contrast between the traditional self − which has minimal
demands, takes responsibility and is bound by duty − and the California self, “the self
taken ‘to the max,’ a self that chooses, feels pleasure and pain, dictates action and even
has things like esteem, efficacy and confidence. … an entity whose pleasures and pains,
whose successes and failures occupy center stage in our society”.16 Seligman attribute the
emergence of this self in part to the self-esteem movement which encouraged children to
become preoccupied with themselves, demanded they love themselves, and obliged them
to feel good about themselves for no sound reason. It gave rise to a generation that
mouthed meaningless rules of living such as “To be able to love another you must first
learn to love yourself”.
By removing the constraint imposed by reality, it took away from children the sense that
self-esteem was the consequence of achievement. As Jean Twenge argues in her recent
book, Generation Me, the danger is that self-esteem becomes narcissism, a preoccupation
with self and lack of empathy for others.17 Psychological studies show that narcissism
among young adults is much more common now than it was in earlier generations.18 One
can’t help wondering whether it would be better to teach young people humility rather
Reinforced by a popular culture that lauds rebelliousness, a generation of young people
has been taught that they should not worry about what others may think of them. Seeking
approval is said to undermine self-reliance.19 The non-conformity that for the protest
generation was a way of casting off oppressive social strictures has morphed into an
infantile rejection of social norms. Yet this leaves us asking: How does someone who does
not care what others think construct a sense of who they are to guide them through their
daily lives. Twenge quotes an 11-year old girl: “I think the individual determines what is
cool, and it is his or her opinion”.20 But who provides the options from which the
individual must decide what is cool and what is not? There is undoubtedly some cultural
autonomy here, which is why marketing firms hire young people to go into the streets,
bars, dance-halls and schools to uncover what the leaders of cool are doing. But if the
market does not actually invent every marker of cool, it turns a minority preoccupation
into a craze. So the individuality of cool is a pseudo-individuality.
Paradoxically, the unprecedented emphasis on one’s self comes at a time, or is perhaps
made possible at a time, when our grasp on our ‘self’ is weaker than ever, when the self has assumed the form of a chimera. If the self has become impermanent and ephemeral it
is little wonder that wonder people feel lost, isolated and lonely.
Some people are not very skilled at creating and deploying even the California self. The
consequences can be severe, but also potentially liberating. In societies characterised by
individualisation, where we are left to construct our own identities and forge our own
places in the world, we must build defences around ourselves to protect us from the
stresses and torments of everyday life.
A 42-year-old Sydney woman suffering from chronic depression described her condition
My depression is like not having a skin. Anything and everything feels like an
assault; loud noise, loud voices, too many people, everything just seems incredibly
intense and overwhelming. You want everything to go away.21
This woman knew what Jean-Paul Sartre meant when he said “Hell is other people”.
Another woman, also in her forties, had for years been plagued by obesity. She described
how she worked hard at returning herself to a healthy weight. She succeeded but now she
feels much more vulnerable, as if the layers of fat were a suit of armour worn to protect
her from the intrusions of the outside world. For her it was a double blow, for previously,
she could overeat in response to her distress; now she has lost both her protection along
with her means of dealing with anxieties that get through her weakened defences.
These stories illustrate how much we feel out of control and overwhelmed by the world. In
such a world the home becomes ever more important as a sanctuary, an escape from the
pressures. The expectations we have of the home make it all the more irritating, indeed
distressing, when this sacred place is subject to invasions by neighbourhood noise or other
invasions. The epidemic of neighbourhood disputes, which often escalate into open feuds
over relatively trivial matters that could easily be resolved, reflects both the importance
we attach to our private space and the breakdown in community cohesion. In an earlier
era, perpetrators were more likely to pick up early signals about unacceptable behaviour.
The home is but one type of fortification against the turmoil of the world. The purchase of
large 4WD vehicles and the spread of private security can also be understood in these
terms. Many try to avoid situations where others might intrude, so they buy home theatres
so they can avoid public cinemas.
We buttress ourselves psychologically as well as physically. Some eat their way to
security while others turn to drugs to numb themselves. I think affluenza can be
understood, at least in part, as a method of dealing with modern insecurity and everyday
anxiety; certainly, that’s how the marketers see us. After all, the relentless pursuit of
higher incomes among those already wealthy must have a powerful driving force. More
money has mundane benefits, buying protection through a nicer house in a quieter suburb.
We believe it will give more control, allow us to have more influence over our
environment. To a degree it does, although it is all the more maddening when our defences
are nevertheless penetrated.
Sex, love and freedom
Where is all this taking us? For it seems to me that, as the imperative for self-creation and
individualism reach extreme levels, they are exacting a terrible price.
Let me turn again to Michel Houellebecq for an answer. His novels are suffused with a
sense of the disengagement of the modern project of individualism and personal freedom.
For all of their casual sex and post-modern nonchalance, Houellebecq’s novels remind us
of what we sacrifice. What we trade away to have our individualism is the most precious
quality of being human − love.
There is no love in individual freedom, in independence … love is only the desire
for annihilation, fusion, the disappearance of the individual, in a sort of what used
to be called oceanic feeling.22
In his latest novel, The Possibility of an Island, Houellebecq writes of a youthful
generation only a few years in advance of the present, one in which sexuality is no more than a pleasant pastime, devoid of sentimental commitment. For all of the stylish moral
indifference exhibited by the post-modern feminists, such as Catherine Millet and, in her
own way, Kathy Lette, this form of sexuality is a triumph of the male fantasy.
The centuries-old male project, perfectly expressed nowadays by pornographic
films, that consisted of ridding sexuality of any emotional connotation in order to
bring it back into the realm of pure entertainment had finally, in this generation,
Porn films and the sexual ennui of Catherine Millet serve the same function on behalf of
men. While Houellebecq’s novels appear to adopt a weary indifference to this ‘moral’
hollowing out, in fact his work, read sympathetically, is a searing critique of post-modern
moral laxity, all the more powerful precisely because he refuses to impose any sort of
Houellebecq exposes the modern tragedy simply by projecting the trends forward to find a
world of radically isolated selves from which the possibility of intense and passionate love
has been banished. He takes us to a secure, closed, affluent, technologically controlled dystopia and considers the possibility of the island that John Donne said no man could be.
His work expresses better than any sociological treatise the emptiness that stretches like a
cavernous maw beneath the everyday activity of the consumer life. Of the young
generation not far into the future, he wrote: “they had reached their goal: at no moment in
their lives would they ever know love. They were free.”24
At no moment in their lives would they ever know love. They were free. For love binds
us. Here is the great paradox: in our modern pursuit of happiness we forever deny
ourselves the possibility of ecstasy. Let me explain why.
Completing the self
Today, more and more people in Western societies are owning up to a niggling feeling
that something is wrong. The drive towards self-determination has become corrupted into
a preoccupation with the self; balance must somehow be restored. The German sociologist
Ulrich Beck succinctly poses the great personal and political question of our age:
How can the longing for self-determination be brought into harmony with the
equally important longing for shared community? How can one simultaneously be
individualistic and merge with the group?
Carl Jung had an answer to this question, and it is an astonishing answer. It lies in the
process of individuation, which he calls the central concept of his psychology.25 For Jung,
individuation is the process by which a person becomes psychologically whole, ‘a single,
homogeneous being’.26 Becoming whole is a process of finding the inner centre and living
from it. This inner centre Jung also calls the Self, the Self with a capital S, the universal
Finding the universal Self is often a long, slow and painful process, one that not many
embark upon, but which will perhaps become more attractive as the emptiness of the
consumer life imposes itself ever more unavoidably. It ought to be apparent that the
individuated person is the opposite of the modern self-focused individual. As Jung wrote:
‘Individuation does not shut one out from the world, but gathers the world to one’s self’.28 This notion of gathering the world to one’s self means that one recognises that the Self is
at its core shared by us all. This fundamental idea also lies at the centre of Eastern spiritual
traditions; overcoming this duality between self and other is the path to wholeness.
This understanding is the antithesis of the sort of self-centred individualism that so
characterises modern consumer society. For the modern individualist is not really an
autonomous human but the victim of forces he or she barely understands. The more one
feels the need to assert and advertise one’s individuality the more one is affirming that one
is a captive of social forces. This is why the modern desire to create one’s sense of self,
one’s identity, through the consumption of brands is such a monumental deceit. Modern
consumerism is a sort of mass movement masquerading as the opportunity to create
unique individuals. As Jung observed in a different context:
All human control comes to an end when the individual is caught in a mass
So the process of individuation is one in which we can become truly autonomous beings,
but in so doing we bind ourselves to our fellow humans.
Here then is Jung’s answer to the question of how we can reconcile our longing for self-determination with our equally important longing for shared community. When we
individuate and achieve psychological maturity, we feel guilty for separating ourselves
from the whole. To expiate this guilt we have to give something of value back to society.
On the one hand, the process of individuation is one of giving up the self in order to find
freedom, while on the other one acquires an obligation to use the freedom so acquired to
devote oneself to others.
It is immediately apparent that individuation, although representing a separation from the
collective, is the opposite of individualism, the dominant feature of modern Western
society. The individual is not really free of the collective but only imagines him or herself
to be; it is a pseudo-individuality that masks deeper conformity, and the more we try to be
individuals the more our lives are controlled by the social conventions we affect to
This is why the mature person − one who has made the usually difficult, perhaps traumatic
journey to full adulthood − always, one way or another, devotes his or her life activity to
others or to a greater cause.
Achieving psychological wholeness is so difficult because the mundane world, the world
of things, is spinning and this ‘rotation’ generates a centrifugal force that acts to throw us
outwards, away from the stillness of the inner core.
And in modern consumer society the centrifugal forces have never been more powerful;
never have there been so many distractions and lures; never has the superficial sparkled so
brightly; never before in human history has happiness itself been defined by the
determined pursuit of emotional and physical highs. Instant gratification has never been so
enticing and the sole object of the market is to persuade us that this is the way to
happiness.30 In this way the pursuit of happiness through the market has become the
enemy of life purpose.
But there must be a countervailing force, a centripetal force that acts to draw us from the
periphery inwards towards the centre. That gravitational force is the urge to individuation,
the desire for wholeness, the eternal human craving to understand who we are so that we
can make sense of why we are here. This is essentially a religious urge. It means that, for
all of the secularity of the modern age, humans will never be without religion.
1 I would like to thank Elizabeth Weiss for providing very helpful advice in the development of this talk.
2 Reviewer of Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island Weidenfeld, 2006
3 Houellebecq, op. cit. p. 56
4 Julian Watford quoted in ‘A Thirst for Prestige”, Vive magazine, October-November 2005, p. 98
5 The Guardian Weekly, February 24-March 2 2006
7 Editorial, Vive magazine, October-November 2005
8 Neil Shoebridge and Rochelle Burbury, ‘White leather gives a pink glow of self-worth’, The Weekend Australian Financial Review, February 19-20, 2006, p. 24
9 Cited in Sarah Schmidt, ‘Branded babies: marketing turns tots into logo-conscious consumers’, CanWest News Service, 6 May 2003.
10 Sheena MacLean, ‘Just can’t get enough of that fame’, The Australian, 19 February 2006, p. 19
11 Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island, p. 43
12 Ulrich Beck, Democracy without Enemies, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998
13 See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2005, pp. 114-5.
14 See Affluenza pp. 114-5
15 Mia Freedman, ‘Role call’, The Sunday Age, March 26, 2006
16 Martin Seligman, ‘Boomer blues: with too great expectations, the baby-boomers are sliding into individualistic melancholy’, Psychology Today, Oct, 1988. Also discussed in Jean Twenge, Generation Me, Free Press, New York, 2006.
17 See Jean Twenge, Generation Me, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 68
18 Twenge, p. 69
19 Twenge, p. 24
20 Twenge, p. 24
21 Sydney Morning Herald, Health & Science, February 23 2006, p. 8
22 Houellebecq, The Possibility of an Island, p. 300
23 Houellebecq, op.cit. p. 241
24 Houellebecq, op. cit. p. 241. In his earlier novel, Atomised, one character, Bruno, declares: “Everyone says that Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against ageing, the leisure society. This is precisely the world we have tried − and so far failed − to create.”
25 Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Flamingo, London 1983), p. 235
26 Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 414
27 Marie-Louise von Franz in Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols, p. 162
28 Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections op. cit., p. 414
29 Jung, Psychological Reflections, p. 155
30 Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2001, pp. 155-56.