It might be said that, whether conscious of it or not, everyone has a lifestyle. From this perspective, lifestyle refers simply to the defining characteristics or qualities of a particular way of life, be it of an individual, a nation, or an entire culture.

On the other hand, some argue that lifestyle is a Western concept, meaningful only to the citizens of affluent countries, not to those whose main concern is mere survival because of their absolute poverty. From this perspective, the concept of lifestyle applies only to variants of consumerism, a largely materialistic way of life that assumes: (1) that what one wants is entirely a matter of choice; (2) that almost all choices are within one's grasp; and (3) that consumer choices can and should be hierarchically ranked from the most to the least desirable, according to what the mass media and corporate enterprise decide is most worth having and doing. Underlying high-end consumerism is the belief that the most desirable lifestyle is dependent on having the most prestigious occupations, which are, in turn, associated with the highest incomes. The concept and its implications are closely connected to the values associated with extreme individualism, corporate capitalism, and an open market, preferably one that is global in its reach.

To critics, what is excluded from lifestyle is even more important than what is included. While most people would generally consider lifestyle to be a neutral or amoral concept, others, on looking more closely, see it as having an immoral side. Discussions of lifestyle generally exclude any thoughts of justice, respect for human rights, or fairness. In short, questions of "ways of being" are left out of the equation: We tend to forgo contemplation of what society has become and what it should be in pursuit of the favored lifestyle. This is innocent enough as long as people are truly ignorant of global circumstances, but it becomes increasingly inexcusable as the consequences of gross social inequity become better known and the income gap yawns ever wider.

Countries most closely identified with a consumer lifestyle include the United States (where shopping is the most popular leisure-time activity),

A consumer is selecting bulk foods. (M. Stone, U.S. EPA. Reproduced by permission.)

Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and a few others where post-Enlightenment "scientific materialism" has taken hold as the dominant way of seeing the world. In these generally democratic countries, the economy functions more or less according to the laws of supply and demand—if people buy a lot of some good or service, then private businesses organize to produce as much of that good as they can and still make a profit (keeping in mind that at least some of the demand may be stimulated by advertising in the first place). People spend their money as they see fit with little interference by governments. As a result, the economy produces what is wanted by citizens who have the money to pay rather than what might be needed by impoverished members of society who cannot "vote" in the marketplace. In the end, the citizens of free-market countries have access to the most prodigious outpouring of manufactured goods and consumer services, both necessary and trivial, ever made available to members of the human species. Little wonder that in most market democracies many citizens seek social status and define their self-worth in terms of the quality and quantity of their personal possessions, particularly automobiles, houses and furnishings (especially home entertainment products), and clothes. Indeed, the accumulation of private goods is a defining characteristic of a consumer lifestyle. It is often remarked that even the average person in the world's wealthy consumer societies enjoys greater personal comfort and convenience, if not outright wealth, than European monarchs of only a few centuries ago.

Given its pervasiveness in the West, many people will be surprised to learn that the consumer society was, in effect, deliberately constructed. In the years following World War II, North America was endowed with great industrial overcapacity (war-time factories) and large numbers of underemployed workers (returning soldiers). At the same time, the general population, having endured the material deprivation of the Depression and subsequent wartime rationing, was quite used to living modestly. To break people of their habit of "underconsuming," American industry purposefully organized to encourage North America to become a throw-away society and embrace a consuming way of life. In 1955, retail analyst Victor Lebow argued that Americans should make consumption their way of life. He suggested that if they succeeded in making the buying and use of goods into a kind of ritual, they would find spiritual satisfaction and ego gratification in consumption. His point was that to keep the economy going things had to be consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever-increasing rate. Today, a multibillion dollar advertising industry is still dedicated, in part, to creating needs that some new or improved product claims to meet.

Technology has also played a major role in helping industry to persuade people that material goods will help to fill the spiritual void that gnaws at the heart of techno-industrial society. For example, television has so successfully sold conspicuous consumption that the world consumed as many goods and services between 1950 (when commercial television was launched) and the mid-1990s as had all previous generations combined. For all that, a growing number of studies show that there is no correlation—indeed, there may even be a negative correlation—between growing incomes and subjective measures of "happiness" in the world's richest countries. It turns out that money really does not buy happiness.

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