The headline grabbed my attention: “How to create a sense of urgency in your online customers.” Contained in this headline is an unflattering assessment of human beings. It recognises that we have limited capacity to withstand the manipulation of our emotions. It knows how easily we can be convinced to purchase something that we weren’t aware we needed. We probably didn’t even know it existed! Human beings have probably been buying things they didn’t need, ever since there has been commerce. Now we build bigger and bigger houses to store all the stuff we have purchase and don’t use. There is a huge environmental impact caused by us indulging the desire for more, the desire for the next new bit of bling. The planet unfortunately can’t support our lifestyle. We are consuming resources and producing waste at a greater rate than the planet can sustain. There is also a lack of freedom when we are convinced, tempted, enticed, frightened or agitated to consume… primarily to serve the interests of the seller.
How about a different kind of freedom? How would it be to be free from those cravings to have more?
This is not what the producers of “stuff” want. They want us to buy into the story that having more means we are more. So many different forces are at play that keep us on the treadmill, consuming more and more. Let’s look at some of these forces. There is the desire we have, to fit in and be admired. We see attractive images connecting status with material possessions. This implicitly tells us that our desire to fit in will be satisfied if we acquire those possessions. Of course, it is unlikely to deliver. Feelings of connection are cultivated through relationships, not stuff.
Then there is the human nervous system, easily triggered into low level anxiety. To help us cope with anxiety we will often consume something, believing it will help us feel better (and it often does in the short term). How many people use retail therapy as a maladaptive short-term stress relief?
Our brain’s reward system is another force in the mix, encouraging us to search for new things. Anticipating getting something new (or being in the hunt) involves a release of dopamine. It used to be thought that dopamine was released when we attained the reward, but it is now understood that it is in the desiring that we get a little hit of dopamine. And it seems that an element of uncertainty increases the amount of dopamine released. So, not surprisingly marketers build in a sense of urgency and highlight that there is a possibility of missing out.
Humans have clever minds that are good at rationalising our decisions and convincing ourselves that we are in control. It is unpleasant to feel manipulated and we are primed to avoid unpleasant experiences. So, we tell ourselves that we are making an independent choice to buy.
The icing on the cake in this complex interplay of forces is a lack of awareness. We don’t even know that we have convinced ourselves that it is our choice to do exactly what the seller wishes.
The activity of the marketers, combined with our biological and social conditioning, generate feelings, desires and behaviours that mostly don’t make it into our awareness because we are too stressed or too busy (same thing?), to notice. This is where a mindfulness practice is valuable. Mindfulness involves pausing and noting what thoughts, feelings, body sensations are present. Over time we bring into our consciousness what usually is hidden out of sight.
As Carl Jung wrote: ‘Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.’
It is said that we are not rational beings with emotions but emotional beings who rationalise. Knowing this we can put some effort in to getting to know our emotions a bit better – especially those uncomfortable ones (anxiety, envy, disappointment, hurt). Those uncomfortable emotions often cause behaviour that feels good for a moment, but doesn’t serve us (or the planet) in the long run.
Mindfulness requires a disciplined approach to bringing our attention to what is happening in the body, mind and heart. Through this process we become a better observer of self. We get to see the unfolding of patterns of behaviour, including how we are triggered into craving by external messages. Through practice we learn to sit with these desires. The freedom that comes from this practice is well worth the effort.
Kathryn (still in training to notice and sit with desire)
Dr Kathryn Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.