From the October 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard
Living in a consumer society tends to make us measure our own success not in terms of genuine happiness but in terms that are mainly decided by the ad men and women of this world. They sell by getting into our brains and creating a false universe of dream houses, sunny days, sexy nights and beautiful cars; planting ideas of what we think will make us feel better, make us a feel successful, liberated and free. That's the deal – "buy this product and it will make you feel good about yourself. Life will be better."
We've all done it – at least I certainly have. I see a BMW on the box and want one; not because I need one as I have a perfectly good car already. No, although a BMW is a very nice car, I am not actually interested in the car – it's the dream that comes with it. That drive through the twisty roads of the Italian hills on a sunny evening. A warm breeze blows and I drive swiftly, quietly along, feeling as successful as hell. That is how they sell.
But of course it's a myth. You buy your brand spankers BMW and six weeks later the dream has not materialised and you have become no happier than you were before you bought it. Your life has not become one endless round of trips to Italy and you have not suddenly become an overnight success. You've been conned. You may turn the envious head, but your dream machine has no more turned you into a sex magnet than it has knocked ten years off you.
The trouble is that we have forgotten how to measure our success in our own terms. Instead, we have fallen for the IKEA, BMW, flat screen, and NICAM Digital Stereo ad-man's version of what will make us successful and happy. And if we are to measure success in terms of how happy we are then I would bet a BMW to a DVD player that most of us have failed to succeed and are, for the most part, unhappy with our lot.
So, what is success? How do we measure it? How do we obtain it in a society that has fetishised it and distorted the term? For myself I measure success in terms of "Am I happy?" and "if not, why not, and what can I do about it?"
Many institutions use assessment methods to see if they are succeeding in the goals they have set for themselves or which have been set for them – schools, hospitals and councils among them. But both here in the UK and in some towns in the US they are starting to use such assessment in a totally new manner. Rather than a town simply measuring its success in terms of "Did we stay within budget for the new police station?" and other forms of bean-counting, they are asking the people – yes, that's right, the people – to say what they think would make that town a success – in terms of happiness.
People have responded with such things as wanting more vegetarian restaurants, a safer and less polluted environment where children can play, more people using the library, to be able to sit in the park and hear no traffic noise and to have ducks and swans on the local river. Simple things, really. In follow-up surveys, once some or all of these goals had been achieved, people responded saying they felt a lot happier.
And I guess that's my point here. The admen have made us forget how to measure our own level of happiness and how to improve it. I refer to the simple things in life, sitting by a river in peace and quiet, perhaps sharing a chat with a friend, socialising with peers, and the laughter of children. Instead we have fallen wholesale for the empty promises that are sold to us, of happiness bought over the counter, and all in the name of profit. We have forgotten that real success is to feel and be free, to know community and mutual respect, to co-operate because you want to be helpful and not because it makes you a couple of quid.
Trouble is, they keep selling the lie and we keep buying it. Success and happiness is not a BMW; it is a world where we don't kill one another for the profit of others, where we do not measure a person by their wealth, but where we share a world we all own, where we work together to enhance and protect it. A world in which we all have become successful is one in which we work for the common good because we want to, taking from the communal stockpile of wealth according to our own needs. Sitting back by a river and listening to bird song and watching the swans after a day of work you enjoyed because you wanted to do it, safe in the knowledge you live in a world without waste and want and war – that's success. A world away from money, profit, ad-men, and their empty dreams.