The rise of consumerism has made us think that we live in a materialistic society. When our happiness depends on what we possess and what we are able to buy, it is hard not to think that materialism penetrated our culture. However, the philosopher Alan Watts thought that reality is even worse: he was convinced that our society is not materialistic, but idolizes appearances. And the difference is substantial.
In the society of appearances the essence is lost
“It is not correct to say that modern civilization is materialistic, if we understand as materialist the person who loves matter. The modern brain does not love matter but measures, not solids but surfaces. It drinks by the percentage of alcohol and not by the pleasure of the ‘body’ and the taste of the liquid. It builds to offer an impressive facade, rather than to provide a space to live”, as Watts says.
And that obsession with appearances transludes practically in all spheres of everyday life. “We buy products designed to present a facade in detriment of its content: huge and tasteless fruits, bread that is little more than a light foam, wine adulterated with chemicals and vegetables whose flavor is due to the dry mixes that endow them with a much more impressive pulp”, he added.
In the society of appearances, the essence matters little. Worshiping the exterior, the benefits are gladly sacrificed in favor of the aspect, an aspect that must convey a clear message and whose sole objective is to become a status symbol through which we communicate our supposed value to the others.
When we choose based on appearances and measures we lose sight of the needs that objects must meet. So we end up buying beautiful and expensive sofas, but so uncomfortable that they can hardly be used. We buy the smartphone according to its brand, to be able to show it off, instead of looking at its technical characteristics. Or we choose houses with huge rooms and tiny kitchens and bathrooms, designed moe to impress the visitors than to live comfortably. Obviously, that chain of “bad” choices will pass us a bill, a bill that we will pay with frustration and unhappiness.
Choosing the appearances condemns us to a state of permanent frustration
The problem is that those who succumb to appearances and dimensions are “Absolutely frustrated, because trying to please the brain is like trying to drink through the ears. Thus, they are increasingly incapable of authentic pleasure, insensitive to the most acute and subtle joys of life, which are, in fact, simple and extremely ordinary.
“The vague, nebulous and insatiable character of brain desire makes its practical realization especially difficult, that it becomes material and real. In general, the civilized man does not know what he wants. […] He does not seek to satisfy authentic needs, because they are not real things, but the secondary products, the effluviums and the atmospheres of real things, shadows that lack separate existence of some substance”, Watts said.
The “brain desire” would be our obsession with measures and numbers, brands and logos, those things that we can boast in front of friends and that should give us intense sensory stimulation, far away from the calm and full enjoyment that leads to true happiness.
Obviously, when appearances are prioritized, much of the satisfaction and pleasure that things can bring is lost. When the goal is to exhibit or impress, instead of experimenting, we lose enjoyment along the way because we are more focused on the other than on ourselves.
That condemns us to a loop. “The cerebral economy is a fantastic vicious circle that must provide a constant excitement to the ear, sight and nerve endings with incessant streams of noise and visual distractions from which it is impossible to escape […] Everything is similarly manufactured to attract without giving satisfaction, to replace all partial gratification with a new desire”, according to Watts. Because in reality it is not our desires or needs that we satisfy each time we buy something, but the desires and needs that society has imposed on us.
The way out, according to Watts, does not consist in embracing extreme frugality and reneging on material things, in the style of cynics, but in finding the simplest and fullest pleasure that things can provide us. It consists of having less, but enjoying it more, which is to choose the things we surround ourselves with taking into account our desires, tastes and needs.
It is not a banal change, it implies a profound inner transformation in which we affirm our identity, and we dissociate ourselves from passing fashions and the desire to impress, to enjoy what we really like, without guilts, regrets or pressure.