Frank Trentmann:

But mainly Hood appeals to individuals to reflect on their choices. ‘If you are unhappy,’ he concludes, ‘then it is your fault and you need to do something about it.’ Fair enough, but how? Individuals, he writes, should ‘exorcise’ their acquisitive ownership and, instead, spend more time with each other. I am all for that, but, sadly, the experiments by slow-living followers and other minimalists and down-shifters show that good intentions on their own are not enough. Change is possible, but we need the help of states, cities and companies which have shaped the intense consumer environment we live in.

When the intellectual topsoil is this thin, it makes sense that there would be this much manure spread around on top. There’s probably no point in digging too deeply into it, but I’m still struck by the sheer amount of question-begging here. Why would you even ask for a one-size-fits-all answer to the perennial problem of human unhappiness? Who decides the difference between an optimal amount of possessions and too many? Which well-intended experiments have failed? What were they supposed to accomplish? What sort of change is supposedly possible with the help of governments and corporations, and why should we believe they won’t simply make things worse? How much net unhappiness in the world is caused by meddlesome busybodies who use their crusading as an excuse to avoid the introspection which might reveal what tedious, unpleasant people they are? (Okay, I smuggled that last one in there.)

Ah, but people are unhappy despite their affluence. Possessions don’t bring lasting contentment. (And hints of imminent environmental doom rumble menacingly in the background like timpani.) Well, isn’t dissatisfaction the norm rather than the rule? Haven’t we always been alchemical geniuses at turning contentment into boredom into mischief into despair? Didn’t we formerly call this the human condition? Perhaps once, when we let gentlemen philosophers do our thinking for us, but we have fMRI scans and Voxplainers in our social-scientific modern age. The problem now, you see, is that our consumer choices aren’t really freely chosen — they’re the product of “social conventions and infrastructures” (and our dopamine squirts), and as we’ve all heard ad nauseum, social constructions can (and should) be deconstructed. And once again, we’re back to that nagging question: who are the people with the objective view from nowhere who will create our new and improved reality for us? And what kind of social or neurochemical engineering would it take to get them to leave the rest of us alone?