First of all thanks to Carl – Mr. 1500 himself, for allowing me a guest spot on this site to talk about finding happiness by disconnecting from the marketing machine. You’re doing great work, and I hope you’ll keep it up. It makes me wonder where I’ll be 1,500 days from now.
The Consumer Mindset
Back in 2008, I was a fairly typical American consumer. I had some decent financial habits like investing and routinely contributing to a 401k. I wasn’t what I would have considered an irresponsible spender but looking back, I realize I bought into the consumerist mindset that keeps many of us on the earn and spend hamster wheel at the cost of a better future.
I bought into the idea that I needed to maintain an image professionally and socially which of course required purchasing and maintaining brand name clothes regularly. I always had the latest phone or gadget, and we casually ate out often without giving the spending a thought. Even though I was a saver and investor, I didn’t realize how much of my earnings were slipping away with frivolous, unnecessary spending. I was a product of the US marketing system and was of the consumer mindset.
Now, I’ll mention that I lost my job towards the end of 2008 right as the financial crisis was kicking off. Being long-term unemployment didn’t stop me from dropping several hundred on a new iPhone 4 in 2010. How’s that for priorities?
I was well programmed by the US marketing machine to believe that happiness was the result of spending on the right experiences and things. Successful marketing makes a potential customer aware of a real or perceived problem that creates a dissatisfaction. Once the dissatisfaction is created, the marketer positions their product or service as the solution to this problem oftening winning the sale.
The marketing we’re all routinely exposed to creates dissatisfaction in our lives that otherwise would not exist. Consider that no one truly needs to spend $65,000+ on a luxury car to meet their needs or be happy. Paying such a sum to get from A to B is a bit absurd when you consider the opportunity cost of wealth lost. Much more absurd when you realize wealth builds freedom and gives you your time back.
But the luxury car is not about getting from A to B. This is accomplished easily enough with a used economy car purchased for under $10K. It takes creative marketing to motivate someone to drop such a sum into a car purchase, and it’s typically an ego driven decision. The marketing is psychological, subtle, effective and rather brilliant. The ads attack the ego.
Car companies show ads that subtly and subconsciously send the message, “If you don’t drive this car, you’re a failure/not a man/haven’t achieved success”. You send messages like…”You work hard and you deserve freedom and joy after a hard days work- otherwise, it’s all for nothing”.
The psychology is sharp and focused with good marketing. Perhaps marketers will target the successful independent woman for example. They can subtly imply that her failure to buy a luxury car is due to being afraid her husband will judge her decision as irresponsible. Not buying the car means she’s not independent and buying it will demonstrate her strength. A direct attack on the ego.
Come on! Just Ignore These Silly Ads.
Doing what you can to avoid ads will help. Turn off the TV. Read a book. (But keep checking out blogs!) Marketers know that you aren’t going to be interested in their ads, but many are designed in a way that the ad is effective on a subconscious level. Consciously speaking, ads don’t register with me. But on a subconscious level, I think they do play into our motivations and perceptions. After all, ads bombard us. Billboards, radio, TV, podcasts, movies. You can try to disconnect but many ads will still slip into your view.
Disconnecting From the Marketing Machine
So I mentioned I lost my job in 2008 as the financial crisis was kicking off. I was ready to take any position that would have me. At this time I was less aware of the various ways that an entrepreneur might earn such as freelancing or through the gig economy. That would come later. What happened next was that I became aware of an opportunity that would take me to another country where English was not the primary language. I accepted a job teaching English in Taiwan and booked a 20-hour trip to get there.
Off to Asia
Living in Taiwan was great for many reasons. The food was new and exciting and the Taiwanese have many delicious dishes like hot pot and beef noodles. They’re also known as being the originators of bubble milk tea. If you get a chance to visit Taiwan, look for a dish called “stinky tofu.” (It’s better then it sounds.)
Taiwan is also an excellent hub to do travel to other parts of Asia at a relatively reasonable price. (You can travel to some countries for less than $80). But one of the best things about being in a place where the primary language was Chinese, is that you’re not a significant part of the population enough that marketers will target you.
Sure I was still surrounded by ads from many types of media. But they were in Chinese. As such, they went over my head. I disconnected from the marketing machine considerably. Major luxury car brands still ran their ads, but I didn’t have to hear the attack on my ego. They were just videos of nice overpriced cars driving around with someone speaking Chinese over them.
Being disconnected from the marketing machine of the West I noticed something. My desire to spend seemed to drop naturally. In three years of living in Asia, I rarely bought new clothes. I stopped desiring a fancy car or any clothes that displayed status. I was happy enough as is and realized that I had what I needed.
Where I Found Happiness
I found happiness in having a life where I could sleep in a bit and avoid waking up to the dreaded alarm clock. This life was a bit of a preview of the financial independence I’m relatively close to achieving in the next couple of years. The life of an English teacher is a bit lax. It typically consists of working around 20 hours a week in the late afternoons to early evenings.
I found happiness in conversations with friends and enjoying good meals together. It’s possible to have great times while spending very little to nothing. Riding a used $400 scooter up a mountain to explore gives a sense of freedom that would rival any Audi or BMW ad experience I’ve seen.
I discovered passion and meaning in travel. All travel is enriching but global travel offers an opportunity to see other cultures as well as gain a new perspective of our own culture through an outside lens. (Using chopsticks to cook raw meats in a communal hot pot soup at least made me question if Americans are a bit overzealous about our fear of germs).
Making friends and meeting new people from around the world bring a sense of happiness that didn’t cost anything. Travelers from around the world share a sense of comradery since it’s a bit of a shared experience to see a new place for the first time, regardless of where you originate.
Where I Didn’t Find Happiness
I didn’t even own a car when I lived in Taiwan. For the first year, I lived in a small town where I got around on a used scooter I bought from another teacher for less than $400. Later, I moved to the city of Taipei and got around mostly by public transportation. I never once envied the people getting around in BMWs or Lexuses or the luxury brands I never saw in the US.
The climate was hot and humid, and the idea of fancy clothes seemed silly. You’re just going to get sweaty. Most of the time, an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt was sufficed to feel ok for the day. I didn’t feel the need for expensive shoes or clothes to try to show that I was “cool.”
Minimalism and Empowerment
As funny as it sounds, eliminating unnecessary needs and spending is an empowering feeling. When you realize that you don’t need to buy so many things to exist or be happy you feel more self-sufficient, and you achieve happiness that breaks the cycle of dependency on spending and things.
There’s a saying that I’m probably going to butcher and I can’t recall the source but it goes something like:
I’m rich not because of my wealth but because of my lack of wants.
Was it Ben Franklin? Someone drop me a line and let me know.
These days Rob is back in the US working but close to heading out into the world to travel and freelance full time. You can read more about job independent earning and travel as well as my experiences after losing my job at gettingcanned.com
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