Greed for unnecessary and unaffordable things has bred a peculiar rapidly growing species of humans called shopaholics. They’re as addicted to shopping as alcoholics are to alcohol.
Here are some of the similarities between shopping addiction and alcohol addiction:
1. Short-lived “high”: Like drinking alcohol, possessing new things makes the shopaholic feel good and crave more of that good feeling. But just as the alcohol high is short-lived, so also is the high—the charm, the excitement, the pleasure—of acquiring possessions.
2. Hangover: Following the shopping high is the hangover: the tension of maintenance. It drains the shopaholic’s time, energy, and money. After getting a tea set, a sofa set, and multimedia set, shopaholics are upset. “Everything I own owns me!” is a their common cry.
3. Increased misery: Manhattan psychologist April Benson, author of I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self, describes how shopping addiction can be just as destructive as alcoholic addiction: “One patient of mine got fired because she was compulsively shopping on the Internet all day. There are other people who neglect their children and park them in the mall constantly because that is what they need to feed their habit. Lots of marriages break up over compulsive buying. In fact, we don’t call it compulsive buying unless there is some significant impairment in some aspect of your life.”
4. Compulsive need: Just as an alcoholic craves drinking, a shopaholic craves shopping. Donald Black, M.D., a University of Iowa psychiatry professor, states, “What the patients will typically describe is they have a baseline preoccupation with shopping, they’re always thinking about it, and a tension builds and they have to satisfy that tension by going out and shopping. That relieves the tension, at least for the time being.”
5. Extent: According to a 2006 study out of Stanford University, as much as 6% of the US population—more than 1 out of every 20 people—suffers from shopping addiction. (Alcoholism is estimated to afflict around 8% of the US population.) Disposable income and easy access to shopping are driving that number upward, but Benson dispels the notion that shopaholism is a problem only of wealthy people: “There have been a few studies linking socioeconomic class with compulsive buying and no significant results have been found. I had a colleague who had a guy on welfare who compulsively bought.”
Unlike alcoholism’s well-known harms, shopaholism’s are less known. The widespread trivialization of shopping addiction is evident in the term retail therapy, as well as in the saying “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”
Concealing shopaholism’s harms is the deep-rooted notion that life is exciting and enjoyable only when one’s income and lifestyle are constantly improving. The Bhagavad-gita (16.13-15) cautions that this materialistic conception breeds indiscriminate greed and slays values. Those infected by greed sacrifice integrity and intelligence on the altar of wealth. Their irresponsible financial choices snowball into individual, national, and social crises.
Greed arises from the lack of a holistic understanding of life. Just as a meal without salt is bland, life without money can be dreary. But imagine a meal of only salt. It’s neither tasty nor nutritious, and it’s harmful. Similarly, a life led in pursuit of money is neither enjoyable nor healthy, and it’s self-destructive. As former UK parliament member Richard Needham once pointed out, “When money is seen as a solution for every problem, money itself becomes the problem.”
Unfortunately, instead of helping people curb greed, modern society fuels and fans greed by portraying it as the mark of success.
Prisoners of Success
“You can fool all the people all the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough,” said the late American film producer Joseph E. Levine.
Consider a young IT professional who owns a modest, functional car. A car-manufacturing giant launches a new car, and promos appear all over the media. A well-dressed smiling young man proudly drives it, while a cute girl casts an admiring glance. In the background, a sullen colleague glares with envy. Showrooms exhibit the new release prominently. The IT professional’s heart burns with desire for this new car, which he fantasizes will bring him the admiration and respect he feels he deserves but never gets. Though he doesn’t need the new car, and can’t afford it, he takes a loan and buys his dream car. As he proudly drives it, causing heads to turn and eyebrows to raise wherever he goes, relatives, friends, and colleagues look on with admiration.
“At last,” he thinks, “I’m a success.”
But his dream is heartbreakingly short-lived. Soon another new car arrives, and the hype over his car dies down—and along with it, his rush of satisfaction.
Most people today are prisoners of success, locked behind inflexible mental conceptions of what success means.
Let’s see how the prison of success works:
1. The consumer industry produces a variety of attractive (and expensive) luxuries, products that we don’t really need.
2. The marketing industry brings these products to us in jazzy showrooms and slick stores.
3. The advertising industry, by its aggressive TV commercials, roadside billboards, and the like, depicts these products as symbols of the good life, vital to protecting and expanding our prestige.
4. The banking industry lures us with the assurances that lack of money need not stop us from fulfilling these media-created desires.
People’s vulnerability to this trap begins with their own misdirected desire to impress others with what they have rather than what they are. Being misled by this wrong standard of success, many people easily fall prey to the advertising blitz, which has been assaulting society with increasing ferocity. The magazine DM News (12/22/97) stated, “An average American now sees more ads in one year than what an average American saw in an entire lifetime 50 years ago.” The same trend applies to the rest of the world, especially “progressing” third-world countries.
Captivated by the spell of advertising, people buy new clothes, watches, and electronic gadgets just because they’re portrayed as fashionable, discarding their still-usable older possessions. More than a hundred years ago, the writer Oscar Wilde was already dispelling the illusion of fashion: “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to change it every six months.”
Incited by advertisements to stay in tune with the latest fashions, people take out large loans that bind them to years of hard work and the agonizing anxiety of repayment. Often, this anxiety ruins the enjoyment of the very comforts the loans purchased.
Even those who are already “successful” enough and don’t need loans are not free from anxiety. They constantly worry about protecting what they have from rivals, thieves, and even relatives. They too are prisoners of success. Stress, tension, worry, and insecurity are synonymous with modern materialistic life.
The Way to Freedom
Scientific studies suggest that spirituality may be the best way to curb greed and gain self-control. Research by Michael McCullough, published in Psychological Bulletin, January 2009, stated that eight decades of research have led to the conclusion that religious belief and piety promote self-control. As early as the 1920s, researchers found that students who spent more time in Sunday school did better at laboratory tests measuring their self-discipline. Subsequent studies showed that devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers, and that religiosity repeatedly correlated with higher self-control among adults.
Writer John Tierney, reporting these findings in The New York Times (“For Good Self-Control, Try Getting Religious About It,” 12/31/08), made a striking suggestion: The one New Year’s resolution that will empower us to stick to all our other resolutions is the resolution to increase our religious commitment.
How does increased religious commitment curb greed? First we need to ask why we always seem to want more and more. The answer, according to the Vedic scriptures, is that as spiritual beings we’re meant to have everything. Or, to put it another way, we’re meant to have God, Krishna, the possessor of all possessions.
The Vedic texts explain that, as spiritual beings, we innately long for spiritual wealth-the loving, comforting, empowering presence of the divine in our hearts. Just as a fish suffers out of water, we become dissatisfied as soon as we lose awareness of that divine presence within us. In spiritual ignorance, we mistakenly ascribe this dissatisfaction to a lack of material possessions, and this misdiagnosis impels us to become greedy for external possessions.
An acute spiritual recession characterizes modern times. With the global spread of the materialistic Western culture, God, the ultimate goal of true spirituality, has been moving down most people’s priority list. The resulting inner vacuum has made us increasingly susceptible to greed, which has acquired addictive proportions and is threatening the world. The global village’s economic interconnection and interdependence only adds to the problem.
To cure greed, merely sermonizing about its evils is not enough; we need to equip ourselves with the means to find inner enrichment. When we commit ourselves to time-tested spiritual practices like meditation, yoga, prayer, and especially the chanting of the holy names-the scripturally recommended process for the current age-the presence of God within will enrich us. Internally fulfilled, we will become immunized to greed, whether we’re rich or poor.
Our Crucial Choice
The Vedic scriptures, being a guidebook for life, not only teach the principle of inner enrichment, but also demonstrate its power through narratives that took place in distant history. The Ramayana, an ancient classic that has enthralled for millennia a fifth of the world’s population, demonstrates the glory of inner enrichment and the futility of mere external accumulation. It does this through the mentalities of two of its main characters: Hanuman and Ravana.
The basic storyline of the Ramayana is as follows: Lord Rama is the Supreme Lord descended on the earth and playing the role of an ideal human being and ideal king. Ravana, a tyrant who has been terrorizing the universe, treacherously abducts Rama’s wife, Sita. In a spellbinding confrontation, Rama, aided by the celestial ape Hanuman, kills Ravana and recovers Sita.
Hanuman, the heroic devotee, strove to reunite Sita and Rama. By dint of his devotion to the Lord, Hanuman was empowered to perform many adventurous feats and was enriched internally by the presence of the Lord in his heart.
On the other hand, Ravana, the villain, tried to exploit Sita for his own enjoyment. By his brutal strength and nefarious schemes, Ravana attained fabulous wealth and power, but he was never peaceful or satisfied because his uncontrolled mind always demanded more and more. Ultimately, he met an inglorious end and lost everything.
The Vedic texts explain that all wealth is a manifestation of the Lord’s consort, Lakshmi, or Sita. So, when we use our wealth in the service of the Lord, we are cultivating the mentality of Hanuman. But when we use wealth for our own selfish enjoyment, we are cultivating the suicidal mentality of Ravana. It is unfortunate that today some misled people consider the Hanuman mentality of selfless godly service old-fashioned and the Ravana mentality of self-centered godless enjoyment modern. Hanuman’s satisfaction and Ravana dissatisfaction indicate the opposite results of people who cultivate the Hanuman and Ravana mentalities.
Even a person with worldly desires—a person not utterly selfless and pure like Hanuman—can still attain good fortune by rendering devotional service to the Lord. The story of prince Dhruva in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, another principal Vedic text, vividly demonstrates this point. By contemporary standards, Dhruva was super-ambitious; he wanted a kingdom far greater than the vast kingdoms of his father and grandfather. But he chose righteous means to fulfill his ambition, worshiping the Lord with devotional discipline centered on chanting His holy names. He not only attained his desire, but he also became so purified and enriched with devotion that worldly wealth no longer captivated him. Thus empowered with devotion and detachment, he ruled as a virtuous and prosperous king in the service of the Lord and all His children.
The same powerful process of mantra meditation that blessed and purified Dhruva is available to us today. Mantra meditation is a process for redirecting our desires from the things of this world to their source: God. In the present age the most powerful mantra for meditation is the maha-mantra (“the great chant for deliverance”): Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Mantra meditation illuminates us with an inner wisdom that opens our eyes to the realities of the world we live in. It thus protects us from being exploited by vested interests externally and victimized by selfish desires internally. Mantra meditation also reveals to us the presence of the Lord in our hearts, thus forever satisfying our perpetual thirst for happiness. Further, by connecting us with the power and the intelligence of the Supreme, it enables us to face with confidence all the ups and downs of life and either achieve or purify our ambitions. And mantra meditation progressively increases our devotion to the Lord, thus preparing us for our return to the abode of supreme happiness, the kingdom of God.
—Chaitanya Charana Dasa