Consumption & Need Archives - The School Of Life

There are in aggregate far more of them than there are of us. We’re a mere 7.5 billion – while there are 19 billion chickens, 1 billion sheep, 1 billion pigs and 1.5 billion cows.

They certainly cannot be happy, yet they can never complain. They are structurally among the most melancholic living things on the planet. To understand the essence of sadness, we don’t need to read poetry by a tubercular 19th century poet or the analyses of a mid-20th century existential philosopher. We need only spend a few minutes gazing into the eyes of a Black Angus cow, who has had two summers on the earth and is now a few days away from slaughter.

It would be stretching credulity to say that they could understand exactly what was coming for them but we can hazard that they might feel that something was awry; that the system in which they were born into was too systematised and structured to be wholly honest, that there was something suspicious in those calorie-rich meals they were constantly being fed with scarcely time to pause and ruminate, that there was a worrying brutality in the manner of the men herding them from steel enclosure to steel enclosure or jabbing them with vitamins and hormones, that those repeated disappearances and the bellowing near the trucks might one day catch up with them.

It is often said that we wouldn’t eat meat if we could see inside an abattoir. But our consciences might be stirred far earlier and less dramatically, simply if we spent two minutes forcing ourselves to look into the eyes of a condemned cow at the edge of a field. What is most humbling is their passivity and readiness to be kind. One might fear that they would come to their senses and attack. We would deserve that they would kick us to death. Instead, if we place a little grass on our palm, they will pull what passes for a smile and let their large fleshy tongue whip the snack up into their mouths. They let us stroke their noses and caress their flanks – which will soon be hanging from a fast moving hook in a refrigerated chamber covered in discarded hooves, tails, faeces expelled in a panic and splatterings of brown-red blood.

It’s as though they know, as they stare back at us. They know our cheap desires, our cover-ups, our paltry excuses, our absurd claims to enlightenment and goodness, how we have done nothing but hoodwink them since it all began in central Anatolia 10,000 yeas ago. At least at the start, their lives were expensive and precious enough to be revered; some self-righteous human might write a poem or organise a festival the day they were slaughtered. It was ridiculous but better than being hung upside down and shot coldly in the head along with another fifty of the herd you grew up with – and then wind up with bits of your rib half eaten on a ketchup smeared plate in a diner somewhere off the motorway and your skin used to cover the sofa.

They aren’t making us feel guilty; we feel very guilty anyway. We know they are far more like us than would be comfortable; they are – in a cosmos mostly filled with inert gases and rock – fellow complex cellular lifeforms; they’re almost our siblings. We can only go through with it by constantly telling ourselves the many ways in which they are not like us: they can’t speak in finished sentences, they can’t think, they can’t do maths, they haven’t read Plutarch… therefore what we are doing is fine, they probably don’t much like life to begin with. They’re almost willing to turn themselves into supper, as a way of saying thank you for all that feed. This must have been the kind of reasoning of the Spanish missionaries as they killed their way around South America.

Perhaps it is too easy, as a vegan or vegetarian, to believe in one’s purity. The anguished, reflexive meat eater is maybe more properly on the horns of the human dilemma: that our lives are always at a fundamental level bought at the expense of something else, that we exist because lots of other living things died for us, that we are an incurably rapacious species; that we have no right but to be sickened by ourselves on every occasion we contemplate who we really are.

The only compensation for the cattle on their way to be shot lies in the laws of biology; the life cycle will catch up with every murderer (us) soon enough. There is no point pretending to be heartbroken. We will in turn be nibbled through by starving unguilty maggots and worms; bits of us will soon be someone else’s lunch and no one will cry.

It’s often said that the problem with modern societies is that they are far too ‘materialistic’ – which is taken to mean that we are far too interested in buying objects. This is not entirely fair. We are indeed materialistic, but not primarily because we buy a lot; rather because we harbour an immense faith in the power of whatever we do buy to have a decisive impact on our state of mind. We aren’t so much greedy as extremely hopeful.

We may, for example, develop a faith that a certain kind of diamond ring will render us able to sustain a long-lasting and harmonious relationship.

Or that particular items of clothing will ensure the interest and acclaim of the world. 

Or that a soft drink will be able to assist us in healing the divisions in our family.

Our belief that complicated psychological ambitions might be accomplished through the possession of an object is the distinctive and poignant feature of our age. In our reverence for the transformative capacity of material things, we are a little like the Bakongo or Songye peoples of the Congo Basin, who rely on what anthropologists know as fetish objects, small wooden figures (often traded for very high sums) which are thought to be able to oversee major interventions in daily life: to sort out troubled relationships, help adolescents on the journey to adulthood, lift the moods of the downcast or dissolve family tensions. Like the Bakongos or Songyes, we too hope that our fetish objects will have success in transforming complex and elusive bits of our internal functioning: a soap might bring an end to anxiety, a bag could assist one in recovering hope, a watch could unblock a relationship with a wary child.

Almost all religions have in some way made use of material objects. They’ve invested in particular sorts of furniture, clothes, buildings, statues and images – and seen these as adjuncts to their spiritual mission. But this has not been without controversy within the religions themselves. Reliance on material forms has intermittently come under fire from a minority of believers who have argued that spiritual transformations should only ever require spiritual means; material objects being wholly redundant to the project of healing the soul. 

Such religious hostility to materialism reached its European high point in the early Reformation when outbreaks of systematic looting and destruction known as iconoclasm broke out across parts of England, the Low Countries and Germany. The spiritual opponents of materialism burnt elegant priestly robes, smashed paintings, chopped pulpits into firewood and snapped the heads off statues – in order forcefully to make the point that anyone with a spiritual goal in mind should avoid harbouring the slightest interest in material forms.

However, the mainstreams of most religions have never been so definitive. Interestingly for the modern age (which wrestles with its own iconoclasts around consumerism), they have allowed a place for materialism. They have, with useful caveats, hinted that there might be such a thing as ‘good materialism.’ 

Good materialism is the fruit of a search for a genuine and balanced place for material objects within the overall context of a good life. It means neither assuming, like certain iconoclasts will, that all material things must be superfluous and an interest in them therefore derisory and suspect. But nor does it mean imagining that material things must have a quasi-magical power to ease complicated psychological dilemmas. Good materialism suggests that material things can contribute to, but must never replace, the arduous psychological work inevitably required to achieve fulfilment, connection, purpose and peace of mind.

Insofar as material objects can be helpful, it is when they embody in visible form attitudes and dispositions with spiritual analogies that are prone to be forgotten in the noise of daily life – and so benefit from being made more prominent in matter. For example, a Zen Buddhist bowl might pull its viewer back to certain key tenets of Zen’s belief-system through its shape and design: its modesty, its gracious acceptance of imperfection, its dignified simplicity. Certain spiritual ideas might be easier for a believer to remember and put into practice when a material equivalent was continually available to be absorbed by their eyes.

Similarly, for a Christian, the decoration of an Alpine wooden chapel – with its slightly crooked pews and walls and a naive rendition of the Virgin above the altar – might make particular ideas of humility or patient effort feel more recognisable and real than they would have done if they had simply been explained in a book. The peace one was looking for within would have robust encouragement from outward forms. In such cases, material objects will assume the status of goads or encouragers. Their design points to an inner destination – even if it is one to which they can’t take us all on their own. 

This philosophy of material objects can be applied as much to the consumer realm. A secular object may – just like a religious one – embody an important set of values; it might be hope or courage, straightforwardness or sweetness. By having the object around us, the values it refers to, and that might otherwise have been intermittent in our thoughts, have a chance to grow more stable, resilient and convincing and to prompt pieces of inner evolution. A certain kind of chair might encourage an attitude of acceptance; a pair of sunglasses might help a shy person to keep rediscovering reserves of confidence; there might be a role for a brightly coloured new top in cementing a break with a sorrowful past.

It isn’t therefore that material objects have no role whatsoever in fulfilment. It’s that the main effort we will need to make will, unfortunately, always have to involve an engagement with our psyches and those of others. Calm isn’t going come simply from flying to a particular destination and having an outdoor bath; it will be the result of studying the feint sources of our long-buried anxieties over many patient months. Likewise, friendship won’t magically emerge from a certain sort of soft drink, it will require that we make ourselves available to someone, that we dare to be vulnerable around them and know how to interpret what they tell us with imagination. And a good family can’t spring ready-made from the acquisition of a new timepiece, it will involve being patient around the many trials of adolescence and the courage to lay down boundaries which might involve short-term tensions and recriminations. 

Modernity has made us feel less prepared for a lot of this. It has encouraged us to have excessive faith in quasi-magical solutions originating out of material things. It has encouraged us to believe that objects can have a greater effect than they ever can – which has in turn, in certain quarters, bred a furious iconoclasm which, to no good end, has rendered us guilty for our supposed greed. It can matter immensely to our state of mind that the colours and forms in our vicinity are a certain way, that there is a particular atmosphere and spirit to the things that we see and touch every day. However, beauty can only ever be the handmaiden of wisdom, it cannot be its sole catalyst. We should be careful neither to decry nor excessively to celebrate material life: we should ensure that the objects we invest in, and tire ourselves and the planet by manufacturing, are those that stand the best chance of encouraging our higher, better natures.

How to Survive the Modern World
New Book Out Now

How to Survive the Modern World is the ultimate guide to navigating our unusual times. It identifies a range of themes — our relationship to the news media, our assumptions about money and our careers, our admiration for science and technology and our belief in individualism and secularism – that present acute challenges to our mental wellbeing.

The emphasis isn’t just on understanding modern times but also on knowing how we can best relate to the difficulties these present, pointing us towards a saner individual and collective future.

Shop Now

The most significant aspect of modernity that separates it from every era we have previously known is a relatively humdrum and apparently inconsequential activity: shopping.

For most of the history of humanity, shopping was a very straightforward matter: there was nothing to buy. Ninety-eight percent of the income of a northern European peasant in the twelfth century went on food: a diet of porridge, bread, cabbage, peas and in a good week, mutton (in China, it was rice, millet, turnip, yams and, at favourable points, a duck or a dog). But there was next to nothing left to spare thereafter; inventories of the dead in fifteenth century England show that a person might pass away owning nothing at all besides the clothes they had collapsed in and a stool or a knife. It would have been a sign of true prosperity to lay claim to a candlestick.

Then, in the middle of the seventeenth century, in the countries of the North Atlantic seaboard, an astonishing phenomenon started to unfold: thanks to incremental improvements in farming techniques, ordinary people began to have just a little more money at the end of the month than they needed in order not to starve. The sums were modest in the extreme and the items for purchase equally so: a belt, some brass buttons, a chest, a copper pan, a night hat… But demand led to increased manufacturing, which then – in a virtuous cycle – fed back into employment. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, northern European average wages were on a gentle upward curve. Products that only a few generations back would have been inconceivable were slowly becoming more affordable. Simple cottages acquired hard-wood floors, women might buy a second dress and men a waistcoat for Sunday, a child might have a doll, a family a padded chair.

By the middle of the century, northern Europe was witnessing the world’s first consumer revolution, in which goods that had once been luxuries were growing affordable to an ever expanding public. An emerging middle class began to buy embroidered linens, cutlery and crockery, sideboards, dining chairs, divans, coffee, cookbooks and pictures. Fashion magazines allowed people in provincial towns to see – with only a few week’s delay – what the most elegant women in Paris were wearing in the evening.

In the two centuries that followed, the consumer revolution spread to every region of the world, becoming ever more significant as it did so. In 1893, the newly launched Sears catalogue gave ordinary Americans access to a previously inconceivable array of goods in one thick volume. With a newly efficient postal service and a nationwide chain of warehouses,  one could order – and within days receive –  anything from hair curlers to lawnmowers, toilets to firearms – as well as more esoteric items like a pump to develop one’s breasts and a cream to enhance one’s chest. 

In the cities, gargantuan sums were invested in the construction of department stores, baroque palaces of consumption that presided over elegant new shopping boulevards. In 1882, Hermann Tietz opened Berlin’s first emporium, whose sumptuousness was designed to loosen shoppers’ hold on reality and induce them into a trance-like state – in which they might more readily walk away with a deposit on a giraffe-skin sofa from the third floor or an Amazonian parrot and cage from the menagerie in the basement. A globe above the door was decorated with carved ostrich feathers, pearls and brocades; there was a vaulted ceiling, skylights, gilded angels and a dramatic open atrium lined with gargantuan plate-glass windows through which Berliners might peer and dream as if at an aquarium. 

Tietz Department Store, Berlin, 1910

In Paris, the Galeries Lafayette opened its first palace in 1912; it had a tearoom, a smoking room, an oriental bath and a 43-metre high stained-glass dome. It seemed almost normal when the store announced an offer of a 25,000 franc prize to the first pilot who could successfully land on a specially constructed 20 meter long runway on its roof, a manoeuvre accomplished in January 1919 by a World War I veteran, Jules Védrines, to the wonder of a global newspaper audience and a 10,000 strong crowd in the streets below.

A paradoxical element of the consumer revolution was how serious apparently ‘small’ things became in its wake. The most minor items – shirt collars, shampoo, scrubbing brushes, margarine – contributed to fortunes unprecedented in size and scope. Sums of money that would once have been sequestred only through the conquest of nations or the edicts of kings could now be peacefully accumulated through the skilful merchandising of chocolate bars and hair creams. As a consequence, new types of people began entering the upper ranks of society. Someone who might have made his money offering the public chocolate ices or fairground rides could become richer than Amenhotep III of Egypt and live more grandly than the Inca Emperor Atahualpa. William Lever, among the most powerful men of late nineteenth century England, built his fortune selling soap – bars of Lux and tubs of Sunlight. The newly wealthy might not obey the standard etiquette expected of elites. They might use the wrong fork, blow their noses too loudly, and in speeches at white-tie dinners, refer in an unvarnished way to what they had learnt from their old ma back in the homestead. 

William Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, inventor of Sunlight and Lux Soap

But economists understood that ices and soaps were no laughing matter. If a country wished to be prosperous, it needed to engage in the buying and selling of modest consumer items on a mass scale. High minded ideals were very well, but it was in the end malls and home shopping catalogues that underpinned a nation’s wealth and strength. A moral case for mass consumption began to be made. The sale of coloured hair clips and lemon soda might not be elevated in itself, defenders proposed, but this was what provided the tax receipts to pay for the maintenance and welfare of the poorest in society, for the schools and orphanages, for the universities and the technical colleges. How heavily a nation was involved in the trade of so-called ‘silly’ things determined how much it would have to spend on hospitals and nursing homes. It might once have seemed impressive to intone Biblically against the absurdities of commerce, it was a great deal more short-sighted and cruel to leave a nation without the money to shelter its weakest members. Churches could wax lyrical about charity; only businesses could generate the money to pay for it.

The growth in consumer society was accompanied by an enormous expansion in education. By the mid-nineteenth century, most northern European countries were insisting on schooling their populations up until the age of fourteen. Alongside reading and writing, most offered maths and geography, science and literature. A powerful nation needed an educated citizenry. And yet there was one subject in which no instruction was ever offered or even remotely thought necessary: the  business of shopping. The assumption was that all the difficulties would lie in trying to accumulate money; spending it would be the easy part.

But the matter might not have been so simple. It has been a bedrock of philosophy ever since Socrates that human beings are exceptionally bad at distinguishing correctly between what they need and what they desire, between what they properly require in order to flourish and what merely seems enticing and yet might in fact injure or impair them. So long as, for most people, there was simply nothing available to be desired other than an extra serving of cabbage or a slice of cocker spaniel, the topic was slightly theoretical. Yet in the new conditions of modernity, when the entire purpose of the economy came to be that of raising disposable incomes in order to facilitate non-essential consumption (and where rooftop landings were adroitly engineered to remind one of the ecstatic pleasures of browsing), the matter of how to spend fruitfully and accurately assumed a newly fundamental place. In front of the pastry selection in the Tietz Department Store or at the shirt rack at the Galeries Lafayette, the question of how to shop well moved from being an issue of academic obscurity to an existential priority.

We too often frame the chief problem of consumption in terms of price (a failure to pick a bargain), but the errors can be more fundamental; they are errors of self-knowledge. Spending successfully depends on grasping the intimate links between what we acquire and how we feel. When we choose an unhelpful item (it might be an eclair or a house, a pair of shoes or an education), it is because we lack a sufficiently robust knowledge of our own natures. We make for imperfect consumers for the same reasons that we slip up in multiple areas of our lives: because we are untrained amateurs in the art of making ourselves happy. 

None of this would necessarily matter if the stakes weren’t so high. The tragedy of consumerism is that we have over a couple of centuries rearranged the world in the name of a privilege we may be unsuited to. We have diverted rivers, felled ancient woodlands, chained workforces to cubicles, darkened the skies and encouraged ourselves to spend most of our waking hours away from our loved ones in the frenzied pursuit of greater incomes, all in the hope that we might over time come to smile a lot more regularly. And yet so often, on the way back from the department store or the kitchen design shop, the ice cream parlour or the water park, we privately acknowledge that we have once again not been able to lay our hands on the nerve centres of our own pleasure and might, all things considered, perhaps be in a mood to start crying.

It is one thing to be miserable, it is more poignant still to be so when the sole underlying ambition was to be content. This is the haunting irony we pick up on in images of modern funfairs and holiday resorts – whose existence is premised on their ability to deliver satisfactions that may (we suspect) elude them. The failures of fun are a far greater indictment of modern consumer culture than are the miseries of work. The sweatshops, the rubbish dumps, the waste waters, the exhausted commuters – all these are obviously to be lamented, but the real targets of puzzlement and rage are to be found elsewhere: in the fractious atmosphere inside luxury sedans, in the heartbreaks inside gated compounds, in the dissatisfactions of the family of the coal mining tycoon, in the sicknesses of the soul at the fun palace.

Rob Ball, Funland, Weston-Super-Mare, 2015

As consumerism gained momentum in the 18th century, there was a degree of recognition, in some quarters at least, that money couldn’t just be spent, but had to be spent wisely. Yet the focus of concern tended to be very narrow, centering on two activities in particular: drinking and gambling. Reformers pointed out how quickly lives might be ruined in gin alleys – and how much one might lose sight of one’s true allegiances and family loyalties in gambling dens. To combat these allurements, moralistic posters and prints spelt out the consequences of addiction. One might beat up one’s loved ones after a few bottles, or in Robert Martineau’s The Last Day in the Old Home (1862) have to sell all one’s belongings after a bad run at poker.

The dangers of gin consumption

A sermon on the evils of gambling: Robert Martineau, The Last Day in the Old home, 1862

The problem with such moralism is not so much its high-handedness as its scope. It isn’t only the drunks and the punters that might need to carry warnings. Unfortunate consumption has a far greater sway upon us than these examples; there can be problems long before we need to sell the house. To the extent that we get drawn into any kind of expenditure that prevents us from flourishing and that cuts us off from sources of true nourishment, we are the victims of regrettable commercial seduction. It isn’t surprising that we should often be so; huge interests are continuously at work, seeking to persuade us about the wisdom of certain trends: that happy people drink champagne; that a partner isn’t serious unless they buy their beloved a diamond ring; that we can’t be good parents until we take our children skiing… It can take uncommon strength to stand up to a trend.

We get a hint of the bravery required when we see artists making a protest against prevailing notions of beauty and good taste – and lodging talented objections in the name of their own divergent visions. In mid-eighteenth century France, the prevailing artistic trend ran firmly in the direction of the Rococo style, which emphasised idealised romantic scenes, aristocratic grace, luxurious prettiness, ribbons, gauze and lots of pastel-coloured flowers. 


It would have taken a great deal of self-awareness and inner confidence to say that, on reflection, this was not one’s own idea of fun – and that beauty and interest might lie in a very different place. But for the French painter Chardin, it was an imperative to register a raft of alternative enthusiasms. At considerable cost to his reputation, he explained over a succession of canvases that happiness as he understood the term lay elsewhere: in quiet and rather serious domestic scenes, in kitchens and parlours, in preparing tea for the children or in reading a book before bedtime, in a simple vase on a sideboard or in a loaf of crusty bread broken open on a table.

We can seldom match such bravery. The fear of being thought strange prevents most of us from taking our less socially-endorsed tastes seriously. We go with Rococo in one era, flared shirts in another. We might, in our hearts, not want to follow the script of how to dress ourselves, go on holiday, evaluate a book, celebrate a child’s birthday, honour a loved one, run a marriage, prepare a dinner party or lead a life, but we meekly go along with expectations for fear of standing out. Far from being dogmatic self-centered creatures, we are for the most part touchingly tentative about our own intuitions; we lead most of our lives firmly within a cage of assumptions created for us by others.

It isn’t – as a certain political fantasies suppose – that our tastes are, in reality, entirely simple (and that all consumption is, for that reason, idle); more that our tastes are hugely varied and anomalous. It might be well after middle age that we finally abandon the dominant story of what we’re meant to wear, eat, admire or ignore – and arrange our affairs as we had long secretly hoped. Part of the problem is that we lack the ability to know, looking back over our experiences, what in fact brought us pleasure. Our brains aren’t keen on taking apart their own satisfactions – and therefore plotting how to recreate them more reliably. We may know that we like a given film or friend, it’s a lot harder to say why. We’re not natural critical dissectors of our experiences. And so it can feel strange and difficult to comb through the details of a holiday or a party, the purchase of a jacket or a bicycle in a rigorous search for the pleasing or painful elements that would ideally guide our expenditure henceforth. 

Modern governments are not uninterested in consumer demand. They carefully track how much of it exists, panic at any decline and may move to stimulate it when it fails, aware that fluctuations in the total sums that people spend have enormous consequences for employment patterns and tax revenues. But the high-level emphasis on demand falls entirely on its quantity, none of it on its quality. From a government point of view, it doesn’t matter in the least whether people are buying poetry classes or handguns, salads or iced doughnuts, psychotherapy sessions or sports cars. All that counts is that the total spend should be elevated.

And yet, it does matter immensely what we spend money on, because the combined consumer choices of billions will shape the kinds of societies we can live in and the sorts of lives most of us will be able to lead. Unlike what economists tell us, there are better and worse kinds of demand. Demand for guns may really be less ‘good’ than demand for education. Demand for health-giving food truly might be ‘better’ than that for diabetes-inducing desserts. 

Consumer society has not been short of vociferous critics who have suggested that we should try to unwind modern capitalism in order return to the simpler lives of our ancestors – and rediscover a lost primordial happiness. But the issue is not realistically whether to consume or not (early history was only too obviously imperfect), the key is how we might consume well, that is, in line with our best understanding of the preconditions for individual and collective flourishing.

We are at only at the dawn of the consumer age. In the context of the history of homo sapiens, only in the last few seconds have we even had the possibility of buying anything beyond subsistence. It shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally stumble into purchasing an unwanted bread making machine or a dispiriting holiday, an ill-fitting melon hat or an unsuitable navigator timepiece – just as we might fail to give sufficient weight to a latent wish to invest in a trip to Samarkand, line our room with soundproof pannels, eat clementine and mint compotes or give away our money to an interesting stranger. We’re still learning how to discover and stay true to our own identities amidst skilfully engineered pressures to conform. We know all about the aspiration to make money – and we devote most of our lives to dutifully doing so. The task ahead is to grow correspondingly ambitious around the largely unmentioned business of shopping – the not-so-modest matter upon which the nature of socio-economic reality is founded.

Eugéne Atget, Bon Marché, 1908

One of the most legendary ideas in the history of psychology is located in an unassuming triangle divided into five sections referred to universally simply as ‘Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs’.


This profoundly influential pyramid first saw the world in an academic journal in the United States in 1943, where it was crudely drawn in black and white and surrounded by dense and jargon-rich text. It has since become a mainstay of psychological analyses, business presentations and online lectures – and grown ever more colourful and emphatic in the process.


The pyramid was the work of a thirty-five year old Jewish psychologist of Russian origins called Abraham Maslow, who had been looking, since the start of his professional career, for nothing less than the meaning of life. No longer part of the close-knit orthodox family of his youth, Maslow wanted to find out what could make life purposeful for people (himself included) in modern-day America, a country where the pursuit of money and fame seemed to have eclipsed any more interior or authentic aspirations. He saw psychology as the discipline that would enable him to answer the yearnings and questions that people had once taken to religion.


Maslow suddenly saw that human beings could be said to have essentially five different kinds of need: on the one hand, the psychological or what one could term, without any mysticism being meant by the word, the spiritual and on the other, the material. For Maslow, we all start with a set of utterly non-negotiable and basic physiological needs, for food, water, warmth and rest. In addition, we have urgent safety needs for bodily security and protection from attack. But then we start to enter the spiritual domain. We need belongingness and love. We need friends and lovers, we need esteem and respect. And lastly, and most grandly, we are driven by what Maslow called – in a now legendary term – an urge for self-actualization: a vast, touchingly nebulous and yet hugely apt concept involving what Maslow described as ‘living according to one’s full potential’ and ‘becoming who we really are.’

Image result for maslow pyramid of needs

Part of the reason why the description of these needs, laid out in pyramid-form, has proved so persuasive is their capacity to capture, with elemental simplicity, a profound structural truth about human existence. Maslow was putting his finger, with unusual deftness and precision, on a set of answers to very large questions that tend to confuse and perplex us viciously, particularly when we are young, namely: What are we really after? What do we long for? And how do we arrange our priorities and give due regard for the different and competing claims we have on our attention? Maslow was reminding us with artistic concision of the shape of an ideal well-lived life, proposing at once that we cannot live by our spiritual callings alone, but also that it cannot be right to remain focused only on the material either. We need, to be whole, both the material and the spiritual realms to be attended to, the base lending support while the summit offers upward direction and definition.


Maslow was rebutting calls from two sorts of zealots: firstly, over-ardent spiritual types who might urge us to forget entirely about money, housing, a good insurance policy and enough to pay for lunch. But he was also fighting against extreme hard-nosed pragmatists who might imply that life was simply a brute process of putting food on the table and going to the office. Both camps had – for Maslow – misunderstood the complexity of the human animal. Unlike other creatures, we truly are multifaceted, called at once to unfurl our soul according to its inner destiny – and to make sure we can pay the bills at the end of the month.


Operating at the heyday of American capitalism, Maslow was interestingly ambivalent about business. He was awed by the material resources of large corporations around him but at the same time he lamented that almost all their economic activity was – unfairly and bizarrely – focused on honouring customers’ needs at the bottom of his pyramid. America’s largest companies were helping people to have a roof of their heads, feeding them, moving them around and ensuring they could talk to each other long-distance. But they seemed utterly uninterested in trying to fulfill the essential spiritual appetites defined on the higher slopes of his pyramid. Towards the end of his long life, Maslow expressed a hope that businesses could in time learn to make more of their profits from addressing not only our basic needs but also – and as importantly – our higher spiritual and psychological ones as well. That would be truly enlightened capitalism.


In the personal sphere, Maslow’s pyramid remains a hugely useful object to turn to whenever we are trying to assess the direction of our lives. Often, as we reflect upon it, we start to notice that we really haven’t arranged and balanced our needs as wisely and elegantly as we might. Some lives have got an implausibly wide base: all the energy seems directed towards material accumulation. At the same time, there are lives with the opposite problem, where we have not paid due head to our need to look after our fragile and vulnerable bodies.


Maslow was pointing us to the need for a greater balance between the many priorities we must juggle. His beautifully simple visual cue is, above anything else, a portrait of a life lived in harmony with the complexities of our nature. We should, at our less frantic moments, use it to reflect with newfound focus on what it is we might do next.

The dark truth is that it’s become very hard to find anyone (and certainly anything) more interesting than one’s smartphone. This perplexing and troubling realisation has for most of us had huge consequences for our love stories, family lives, work, leisure time and health. There is almost no relationship in which the presence of the phone has not had a profound impact. The genuine beauty and interest of our phones wouldn’t be a matter of such concern if we didn’t suspect, somewhere in our minds, that this machine has both opened some doors and is in danger of grievously closing others. This essay knows we love our phones and would never want us to give them up, but it is also gently aware that these delightful gadgets bear a hidden cost. This is a text that aims to bring a little sanity to our closest, most intense and possibly most danger-laden technological relationship.

1. Addiction

We might not be injecting illegal substances or dousing ourselves in alcohol, but we are almost all drug addicts of one kind or another. Addiction is (in essence) dependence on a substance that keeps our real hopes and fears at bay: it is (more broadly) any and every routine we deploy to avoid a fair and frank encounter with our own minds.

To say we are addicted to our phones is not merely to point out that we use them a lot. It signals a darker notion: that we use them to keep our own selves at bay. Because of our phones, we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.

We are addicted to our phones not because we rely on them, but to the extent that we recruit them to a harmful project of self-avoidance. They do not mean to hurt us. But we may – and probably do – use them to injure ourselves. Addiction sounds horrible. But it is a hard name for a normal inclination: a habit of running away from the joys and terrors of self-knowledge.

2. Monasticism

For centuries, Christian monks and nuns built remote, austere (and often very beautiful) places to live, frequently constructed round quiet arcades with tranquil gardens at their core. They went to such trouble because above all else, they were concerned about one thing: distraction. They were acutely aware of our native inability to get the best out of our minds: they understood how vague and jumpy our thoughts can be. And they took the problem of disturbance with utmost seriousness. They so wanted to concentrate on what was important to them, they took immense care to wall-off instantly alluring (but often frankly worthless) distractions offered  by the wider and wilder world.

Their efforts are moving because – as we painfully realise – they were right. Our minds are by nature like mad monkeys, restlessly flitting from one fleeting diversion to another, while all the things we really care about get neglected. But tragically our society and culture does not build us cloisters: it places in our hands ever-open conduits to everything that could possibly divert our minds: real estate, porn, the news, social chit-chat, strident opinion, games, special offers, puzzles, the twelve best hotels somewhere, the weirdest doings of the weirdest strangers and the intimate lives of every celebrity on the planet. We are almost powerless to resist because so many clever, hard working people are devoting their lives to making money by capturing, if only for a few seconds, the most precious thing we possess: the focus of our minds – and our time. Even without the slightest feeling of religious conviction, we might pine for the cloister.

3. The Digital Sabbath

In the Ten Commandments, we are told that God ordered the Israelites to do no work on the Sabbath (that is, the seventh) Day. It wasn’t out of dislike of work. They were fully expected to toil away for the previous six days. Rather, it was a notion of the deep utility of rest that was being advocated. The injunction stems from a deeply wise view of human nature. We regularly need to stop – even when something is otherwise valuable to accomplish. And it helps if we are told to stop in a rather authoritative way, perhaps by someone in the sky with a beard. The concept of a digital Sabbath isn’t Luddite in spirit; it’s not denying that technology brings us enormous advantages or is dazzling in its accomplishments. It’s recognising that we are over-obedient to our machines. We’re too compliant by nature and therefore need to be reminded – with the utmost authority – that we must at points take a break.

The problem is that the gods have died. The great authorities of the modern world are the voices of corporate interests; they don’t necessarily have our best needs at the front of their minds. We have to check our phones of course but we also need to engage directly with others, to be relaxed, immersed in nature and present. We need to let our minds wander off of their own accord. We need to go through the threshold of boredom to renew our acquaintance with ourselves. And we need to do this on a regular basis, perhaps one day a week, as the tribes of Israel cleverly realised a long time ago. We might designate every Saturday as the occasion when – for a while – we mute the tyrannical machine.

4. Look Things Up Inside Yourself

We can look up so much on our phones: we can (if we are inclined) check up the population of Lima (8.473 million); who won the Ladies Final at Wimbledon in 1997 (Martina Hingis); the definition of ‘tautology’ (saying the same thing twice, though in different ways) or perhaps the author of that fascinating quote ‘What you survive makes you stronger’ (Nietzsche). Yet this constant resource has an unwitting, unfortunate side-effect. We consult our phones, rather than ourselves.

It’s not that we actually know so many obscure facts. But we already possess – in scattered, unpolished forms – the raw material from which a huge number of the very best insights and ideas could be formed: if only we gave them enough time and attention. We already have immense experience – but it is not yet fully articulate; its lessons have not been formulated; the conclusions haven’t been extracted.

Often it’s not more information we need but more ambitious use of the information we already possess. What makes for a genuinely enjoyable holiday? What, really, do I love about tennis? What do I need and want to say to my friends? The only instrument to use is our own brain. And there is, perhaps, only one quote we truly need to look up: ‘In the minds of geniuses we discover our own neglected thoughts’ (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

5. Our Phones and Our Relationships

In principle, we love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable.

Our phone, however, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes.

It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their theory of ideal fridge management. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with information about the most expensive apartment currently on sale in Manhattan or the diet of Mymains Stewart Gilligan (the largest pet cat in the world). Only the former will, in the long-run, be a lot more important – as we know.

6. Dating

We can, it seems, hook up so easily. There are millions of people out there. It shouldn’t be hard to find the right one – if only we sign up to the right site. We become monsters of our hopes: any person we have met is judged against those we haven’t ever met. We are unforgiving towards those we know because of the vast reserves of surely ideal companions and partners currently separated from us only by a click or two.

Of course, none of the people we do meet through our phones is in fact ever quite right. So we go back to the search and redouble our efforts. The treasure-mate must be there, if only we look for long enough.

We never do find them though – and for a tragic reason that our phones will not as yet own up to. Everyone out there is radically imperfect. The task of love can’t be to locate some mythical ‘right person’. Compatibility is an achievement of love, it can’t be its precondition. We’ll have learnt how to form relationships only when we surrender our attachment to perfection and learn instead to tolerate and see the point of the trickier aspects of everyone we could ever meet.

This is a truth that our phone, as yet, doesn’t want to teach us. It promises to locate someone who likes eating cheese, wants to wear a rubber mask and lives within a ten mile radius of Sevenoaks. But it cannot, as yet, help us with the real challenge of love: which is to extend sympathy and understanding to human frailty.

©Flickr/L’oeil étranger

7. Porn vs Real Life

A love of porn is deeply understandable and our phones know it. The business of living is so desperately hard, relationships are so challenging, work often so unfulfilling or boring, family dynamics so tricky and the capacity for honest, kindly conversation so restricted, we may through no particular fault of our own end up extremely vulnerable to the sudden intense highs offered by sexting sessions or short films about lesbians trying anal or muscled hunks whipping each other. Porn doesn’t judge, it doesn’t criticise you for being fascinated by threesomes or the idea of kinky librarians. Instead of saying: you are revolting and disgusting, a porn site is welcoming and compassionate. It’s offering online something we might ideally wish to get from another person: acceptance of the curious ways our libido happens to work.

Closeness to a real life partner bring with it so many complications that militate against excitement. There’s a backlog of unresolved resentments; there a daily need to put up with a person’s less reasonable sides or to be apologetic for one’s own failings; there’s the pressure to be moderately respectable and civilized.

All of these are dampers on sexual exploration – and they fall away around porn. The porn site doesn’t care if you didn’t take the rubbish out or chewed a bit loudly; it doesn’t mind that you slammed the cupboard door or gave a monosyllabic answer when asked how your days was; it doesn’t want to go into detail about why you didn’t ring your mother on her birthday or take you up on your attitude to credit card debt. Porn in effect says: we don’t mind about anything else in your life – just concentrate on this for a bit. Porn can be – therefore – a huge relief from the burdensome complications of intimacy. It usefully – and blissfully – removes sex from the emotional landscape of our real relationships. Which is both an immense benefit – and a terrible hidden cost.

8. Nature and the Sublime

Almost since the beginning of time, we have prized the opportunity to get away from reminders of humanity and to immerse ourselves in nature. We have wanted to gaze on the grey indifference of the ocean or the bright, incalculable, immensity of the starry sky. We have loved to stand below towering cliffs or encounter in the flesh a tree that was planted when bison still roamed the plains. We long for the strange ennoblement – and emotional relief – that comes from recognising our own astonishing littleness in the infinite spaces of nature. These grand settings bring with them a profoundly consoling diminution of our cares: if we are so minor in the bigger scheme, so too must be our worries.

Our phones are the enemies of such experiences. They keep intruding our small selves into the picture. We may be on the edge of the Grand Canyon; they are beeping in our back pockets. We may be gazing at the southern slopes of the Matterhorn; they are receiving updates for a food delivery app back home. They ask us never to forget our ego – and the endless things that ail us. Without meaning to, they strip away the help the grandeur of nature offers.  

Instead of losing ourselves, we simply keep asserting our demands and appetites. We record rather than retire the needy, insatiable self. And as we post the images of the perfect sunset over the distant hills, or the clear water of the little stream in the woods, we are forgetting (as we update) what they – quietly and with great and tender majesty – might really have been trying to say to us.

9. Stimulation vs Calm

For reasons connected up with our own evolution as a species – reasons which have become tragic in the modern world – our brains crave stimulation. Once we were responding energetically to vital and serious signals from the environment about the prospect of eating a berry or of getting bitten by a snake; now, in the age of fridges and zoos we respond with equal (though deeply misplaced) urgency to anything that can prick our hyper-active fancy, however remote true sustenance or real danger may be.

We jump up at the slightest command. We’re ever alert to new information – even when it’s far from being connected up with anything that truly counts.

Our most urgent need is for something that for millennia was of little concern to us: calm. We react to stimuli even when we’re exhausted, worn down, over-agitated and frantic. And our phones have to accept a degree of blame – because they are the endless carriers of claims to rouse us, when what we really need is exactly the opposite: to be helped to be more serene and at peace.

We’ve not asked our suppliers for the right things. They think we want news about the worst train crash or terrorist incident that happened somewhere in the world right now. That would certainly be new; it might not be important. Maybe what we really need are the most tranquil landscapes, information about the uneventful doings of people in 15th century Provence or Siena or images of the most distant, remote and indifferent moons of Jupiter.

10. Shopping


Abraham Maslow, The Pyramid of Needs

In our hands we hold access to (or at least information about) every product in the known universe. If we wake in the middle of the night and check our phones, we will probably be greeted by an offer from a shoe company, a supplier of flat-pack furniture or a maker of strangely expensive watches.

Nevertheless, the weird truth is that we’re still rather bad at shopping. Not in the obvious sense that we miss a bargain or pay too much for a toaster or a pair of sandals. But rather that our purchasing ambitions are focused only at the lower level of our own pyramid of needs.

Our phone doesn’t know (and therefore cannot help us with) how much we’d rather have a true friend than a cut-price chicken or find a solution to a long running relationship row rather than get a discount on our car insurance. As we struggle up the pyramid of needs, the bargains we need to strike, the commitments we need to make, the things we most require in (or out of) our lives pass over the heads of our sleek and perfectly styled – but ultimately impoverished – phones.  

We are still waiting for phones that will help us properly address the greatest struggles of our lives, the ones at the summit of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid.

11. Beyond Instagram

In the late 19th century, when photography was well-established, the English art critic and social reformer John Ruskin started getting obsessed with the laborious, inaccurate process of drawing. He wanted people to stop taking so many pictures and start using a pencil, watercolour and the evidence of their own eyes. He wasn’t against photos just because they were new. He’d recognised a grim, unexpected downside to the amazing capacity to instantly make accurate images of practically anything.

You can take a photo of a leaf (or your lover’s face or the house you lived in when you were five or a glacier cascading into the sea) but that doesn’t mean you’ve taken possession of this thing in your soul. It’s only when we ask ourselves the detailed questions – is that side of the leaf darker or lighter than the other, how exactly does the stem join the twig, how many points are there in fact round the top portion? – that we start to notice the details and fix them in our minds.

We need to make ourselves pay attention. And ironically – tragically – the ease with which we can create an image works against our very desire properly to notice anything.

We may have to resort to a cruder mechanism to do a subtler thing: discover what something means to us.

We may need, at points, to put the phone down and sketch.

12. Appreciation

Our phones seem to deliver the world directly to us. Yet (without our noticing) they often limit the things we actually pay attention to. As we look down towards our palms we don’t realise we are forgetting:

They are all waiting for a little attention.

13. Poetry

We have learned to link brevity to vacuity. Serious ideas, we suppose, must be transmitted in long and challenging texts. Twitter is as far as one can get from great works like Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Plato’s Republic.

Yet this is an educated delusion. You can conjure the deepest, sweetest and saddest truths in a few words.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more; it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

[192 characters, tweeted by William Shakespeare, c.1606]

Drink to me only with thine eyes,

    And I will pledge with mine;

Or leave a kiss within the cup,

    And I’ll not ask for wine.

[128 characters, tweeted by Ben Jonson 1616]

What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.

[79 characters, tweeted by Seneca 1st century AD]

The only people we can think of as normal are those we don’t yet know very well

[79 characters, tweeted 10 Aug 2012]

Poetry is the smart name for an eternal, central task: to sum up a lessons of experience as briefly and memorably as possible.

We shouldn’t take against brevity out of snobbery. We should just make sure we’re using brief media to say the really big and important things.

14. News

Keeping up with the news sounds like one of the most serious of rationales for our devotion to our phones. We’re not being rude or frivolous: we’re tracking world events. Yet we are curiously unselective about what properly counts as ‘news’. News isn’t merely something that’s happened: there’s a crucial, implied (yet easily ignored) addendum; it happened and we need to know about it.

A lot of what happened is in fact entirely irrelevant to what we are trying to do on earth. Our modern idea of ‘news’ is falsely and also dangerously flattering. It imagines that all of us need to know everything that happened in the last day or hour anywhere in the world.

But in reality, from a personal point of view, (which is the one that counts) the really important news is just everything that is crucial for us to take note of in order to understand our own world and our place in it – even though these priorities might not seem important in a global context.

The real news for us today might be that we should probably give our mother a ring.

15. Fear Of Missing Out

Thanks to our phone we’re more exposed than ever to the alluring things others do: ‘there was this great bar we all went to …’; ‘she’s getting married in a little country church…’; ‘the sun is glinting on Sydney Harbour…’;  the top after-party … amazing views … chic Brooklyn bar that locals love…’

There is so much we’re not doing, not invited to, not part of. Our own lives, it naturally seems, are filled with the Fear Of Missing Out. We suffer the agonies of FOMO.

It’s tempting to get a bit cynical. Maybe the hyped things are not all they’re cracked up to be? Maybe everything is a bit rubbish?

It’s more nuanced than this: we do indeed risk missing out. But there is a rather different list of things we might not get round to enjoying than the one our phones want us to focus on: getting to truly know our parents, learning to cope well with being alone; appreciating the consoling power of trees and clouds; discovering what our favourite pieces of music really mean to a friend, chatting to a seven year old child…

It’s not the notion of missing out that is the problem. It’s our ideas of what we might be missing out on that counts – and that our phones unhelpfully skew.

16. The Dream of Being ‘Liked’

It can feel desperately naive or narcissistic to admit it – but we really like being ‘liked’, we are genuinely moved by a message letting us know that Matteo from Wisconsin or Emile from Livorno wants to be our friend. These little words ‘like’ and ‘friend’ set off such deep and tender longings in our souls: warm, sympathetic, intelligent approval; the promise of gentle, heartfelt understanding. We’re eager to find out more. And we’re almost always disappointed. They are probably very nice people but they are not really offering the kind of kindness and closeness our imaginations had quickly and beautifully sketched.

For all their brevity, ‘liking’ and ‘friendship’ speak right to the heart of who we are. We are lonely creatures – though we might know plenty of interesting people. But others never quite know us exactly as we’d wish to be known. The most elusive – that is the darkest, most complex and most lovely – parts of who we are remain isolated.

Our momentary excitement when we get a message isn’t shameful or ridiculous. It’s a widely shared, yet secret, pang of hope: that our inner solitude will be pierced, that our troubles and joys will be truly understood by another; and that all the messages we wish to send to the world would be received and perfectly understood, at least by someone.

We should not be frightened or discomfited by our pervasive loneliness. At an exasperated moment, near the end of his life, the German writer Goethe, who appeared to have had a lot of friends, exploded bitterly: ‘No one has ever properly understood me, I have never fully understood anyone; and no one understands anyone else.’

It was a helpful outburst from such a great man. It isn’t our fault: a degree of distance and mutual incomprehension isn’t a sign that life has gone wrong. It’s what we should expect from the very start.

In any case, loneliness makes us more capable of true intimacy if ever better opportunities do come along. It heightens the conversations we have with ourselves, it gives us a character. We don’t repeat what everyone else thinks. We develop a point of view. We might be isolated for now, but we’ll be capable of far closer, more interesting bonds with anyone we do eventually locate.

Loneliness is simply a price we may have to pay for holding on to a sincere, ambitious view of what companionship must and could be.

17. Travel

Our phones seem like the most useful holiday assistants: they’ll show us how to get to the Duomo from the pensione or locate the fashionable but inexpensive bistro; they’ll book the taxi ride. They can record – and reveal to others – the defective bathroom tiles in the rented villa or let everyone we know share our surprise at the actual appearance of the dish of green papaya with sliced pig’s ear we ordered at Quan An Ngon in Ho Chi Minh City,

But as yet our phones are skimming the surface of our travel needs. They don’t really know who we are and what we care about, because we’re not as yet able to confess to them – in any productive way – the secrets of our hearts. And they can’t as yet help us to tell those we love (but who weren’t there) what it was really like for us.

Half-formed thoughts are circulating on our minds as we catch site of the Pyramids or walk through the doors of Harrods for the first time. But while our phones can record the moment they can’t – as yet – bring our submerged reactions to the surface. They can tell us what time the museum opens but not why we – uniquely, we – should go there.

18. Playing

You can play on your own – all too easily. On the screen, it’s entrancing, fast, continuous and you are effortlessly moved from one stage to the next.

But ‘playing’, that is, being silly and having fun, with other people is different: a child’s raucous glee when things turn their way; the unexpected intensity of fooling around with a normally staid and measured acquaintance; the pleasure of losing at snap to a shy five-year old; the constructive oddity of seeing someone you are normally a bit intimidated by tumbling on the grass after a successful tackle; the unexpected, but deeply welcome, intimacy of being on the same side in a water-pistol fight with the brother-in-law you’d like to know better.

When we play around with others, we are safely revealing less obvious, but very real, parts of who we are. Our mature, carefully composed work-selves are irrelevant as we inflate the paddling pool; it doesn’t matter how the stock-market is doing while we happily loose at chequers to an elderly neighbour (with a surprisingly inventive storehouse of swear words); or as we see the smile (familiar from childhood) appear again in the older face of our mother as she turns down her winning poker hand.

And all the time, as we play for real, we’ve forgotten to check our phones.

19. Selfies

The problem with selfies is not that we take them, but that we don’t take them seriously enough. We tend to feel the need to be a touch ironic: ‘Here I am eating a sausage!’ ‘Look at me with this cute hat!’  Yet selfies are not inherently silly or self-regarding. They sit in one of the grand traditions of high art: the self-portrait. Although he was hampered by having to use oil paint and brushes, Rembrandt was addicted to making images of himself (more than one hundred across his long career). But he never showed himself winking or making funny hand gestures.

Instead he was looking closely at who he was and what he had become: contemplating the sadness that gradually accumulated in his own face, trying to work out what he really made of being alive: what has life done to me? What have I done with my time on earth? He wasn’t seeking the approval of others, he was seeking self-knowledge.

When something (like taking selfies) seems a little trivial or silly, it’s tempting to think we should take it less seriously; we should distance ourselves from it and see it in a mocking light. But the wiser move might be to get much more ambitious. The art of a selfie may have a long way to go yet.

20. Communication

The quaint (but oddly magnificent) word ‘telephone’ is built around an intensely poignant notion: communication at a distance. It holds out a promise: that one’s solitary voice, sent out into the ether, can find a receptive, sympathetic ear. The phone massively multiplies our opportunities for contact, but doesn’t itself make it easier to say what we need to or to get others to properly comprehend what it is we are really trying to tell them.

Technology annihilates physical but not psychological, distance. One’s words effortlessly bounce off a satellite then stall when they reach the brain of the person we most hope will receive them with full understanding.

Our technology is still so primitive. Our words move infinitely faster than a carrier pigeon or a scroll bearing slave but we are as yet no better at explaining ourselves than we were in early history.

There should, and will one day be, another technology that assists us in putting into words our secret sorrows and tentative hopes in such a way that they can properly be grasped, shared and responded to by others. This tool will intelligently prompt us to formulate more clearly our own concerns and support the skills we need to express ourselves in ways that pierce the defences of others.

The phones of the future will, finally, allow one heart to speak to another.

21. Death

We constantly use our phones to keep track of our appointments. But we are – if we think about it – quite constrained around the things to which we choose to be alerted. There’s the automated reminder of the session with the dentist; the alert to jog our memories that it’s our parent’s anniversary or the text message to let us know we’re due to play a tennis match on Sunday afternoon.

But there are other – very different – appointments we need to keep in mind.

We need reminders to keep appointments with ourselves: we need to spend time with our own worries, to understand them rather than just suffer the anxiety they create.

The grandest (and much the worst) is our final appointment: with death. We don’t know how many days we have left to count down. But what we need reminding of is not the day and the hour but the fact. Ideally we’d get a message every morning: Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris. Remember you are made of dust and and will be dust again.

Brevity, sadly, is the key to appreciation. It is when we remember death that we understand properly the urgency of making the best use of the days that remain.

22. Utopia

Our phones seem amazingly sophisticated: small miracles of compressed, practical science, working hand in hand with advanced Capitalism. We think so highly of them because we compare them to the past, rather than to the possibilities of the future. They are so much more advanced than any device we could possess twenty or forty years ago. Yet they are almost unbearably primitive, in comparison with what – ideally – the long future will bring.

We are still so far from inventing the technology we really require for us to flourish; capitalism has delivered only on the simplest of our needs. We can summon up the street map of Lyons but not a diagram of what our partner is really thinking and feeling; the phone will help us follow fifteen news outlets but not help us know when we’ve spent more than enough time doing so; it emphatically refuses to distinguish between the most profound needs of our soul and a passing fancy.

In the Utopia, our phones will be wiser than we are. They will be kind and not merely subservient. They will know how to edge us away from a stupid decision and how to summon up our better natures.

We deserve pity for having been born in such primitive times.  

In his consulting room at Berggasse 19, in central Vienna, Sigmund Freud came to an important realisation about money. The great majority of his clients were drawn from the Austrian upper middle classes: they were civil servants, engineers, university professors and business owners. Money was not typically a problem for them. Yet when it came to paying for the hour-long sessions with him, they displayed repeated resistance: they would claim to have forgotten their wallets and purses, they explained of not having the right change (Freud always requested cash) or vowed to pay at a later, constantly-deferred date. Beneath these local complaints, Freud sensed a larger, more congenital problem: in his clients’ eyes, it was seemingly incorrect to be asked to hand over payment for something as intimate as the time they had spent talking about their desires, emotions and vulnerabilities.

This reluctance fascinated Freud, who came to see it as symptomatic of a raft of society-wide neuroses around money. In a bid to trace these back to their origins, he pointed out that we all emerge into the world in settings where we do not – at first – have to pay to be looked after. Food, lodging and education along with the tenderest, most nourishing kinds of love are given to us freely in our infancies. Only gradually are we introduced to the complicated notion that a lot of what we need is henceforth going to have to be bought. In certain areas, we accept this without trouble: we do not begrudge the baker for asking us to pay for our bread or the plumber for sending us an invoice for the washer. But we retain a background expectation that some things should remain outside of commerce – in particular, the things we associate with our higher and most meaningful needs: the need for love, comfort, understanding, consolation, guidance and friendship. The arts, the natural home of the higher things, are a particular focus of our suspicions: so much so that it is customary to be dismissive of an artist who is overly direct in asking for money or a serious thinker whose books are conspicuously successful. We seem resistant to the notion that what is dignified and meaningful could at the same time be marketed and sold on a commercially profitable basis.

Freud speculated that this hostility to money had only increased since the Industrial Revolution and the birth of a consumer society. The more the financial motive had become prevalent in the world at large, the more the guardians of the spiritual side of existence had retreated into a defensive position. They expected themselves – and were expected by others – to keep at bay from the commercial arena in order to vouchsafe their ‘purity’. The myth of the poor yet great artist was the particular hang-up of the modern era – contrary to the evidence of previous centuries that had not begrudged Leonardo da Vinci for his aggressive demands for payment or Titian for amassing a fortune as large as that of a successful Venetian merchant.

Freud cast his characteristically suspicious eye over our financial taboos, remarking, ‘Money will be treated by cultured people in the same manner as sexual matters, with the same inconsistency, prudishness and hypocrisy.’ As a Jew, he couldn’t forget the viciousness with which Christianity had traditionally ascribed an interest in money to his own religion, projecting troubling desires onto a convenient scapegoat.

Freud sought an evolution in our financial attitudes. At a practical level, he wanted his new profession – psychoanalysis – to enjoy respectability as a healing activity and at the same time, wished for it to acquire an economic strength that would give it the means to alter society on a large scale. He didn’t want psychoanalysis to remain a hobby for diletantes. He sought for it to become one of the most important industries of the 20th century (he was a notable admirer of the entrepreneurial spirit of Henry Ford). He was therefore deliberately straightforward in requesting money from clients, no less so than a lawyer or a hotelier – to the extent that if a client didn’t show up, he had no compunction about pressing them to pay for the session nevertheless: ‘A certain hour of my available working day is appointed to each patient; it is his, and he is liable for it, even if he does not make use of it.’

At the level of the unconscious, Freud saw parallels between our troubles around money and around sex. Just as the sexual neurotic was, for Freud, someone who could not accept the essential legitimacy of their own impulses, and hence disowned or repressed them at great psychic cost to themselves, so the financial neurotic felt compelled to degrade money while idealising the non-commercial realm, thereby depriving the latter of strength and power. In both cases, health involved integration and reconciliation: a robust acceptance that one might be sexual and civilised, or financially-concerned and spiritually sophisticated. The mature person would not insist that someone who offered them a service related to their higher needs had to do so with blithe disregard to everything material  – as their parent had appeared (through infant eyes) to do in their earliest years. The financially evolved person could accept in a sanguine spirit that the analyst might combine a capacity to care for them with a due regard for their own interest. There was a madonna-whore dichotomy to be overcome around money as well as around sex. The most valuable things could be traded without being sullied.

Freud did not succeed. Psychoanalysis remains a cottage industry. Most of its practitioners, and many of its clients, continue to feel awkward around the commercial aspects of the field. The nail-bar business generates, in the United States, some fifty times more profit every year than psychoanalysis. But we can thank Freud for putting his finger on an unnecessary hang-up which matters because, stretching across society, it diminishes the ambitions that are brought to commerce while weakening the worldliness and competence of those committed to psychological flourishing. As Freud understood, societal and individual health depends on the development of a sanguine faith that what is most spiritually significant for us can also, at no catastrophic cost, be subject to the disciplines and animal spirits of the business world.

We operate with some stock images of the addict: a person with a heroin needle in a park, or who nurses a bottle of gin in a paper bag at nine in the morning or who sneaks off at every opportunity to light up another cylinder of marijuana.

However dramatic and tragic such cases of addiction might be, they are simultaneously hugely reassuring to most of us – because they locate the addict far from ordinary experience, somewhere off-stage, in the land of semi-criminality and outright breakdown.


Such examples are dangerously flattering, categorising addiction in a sentimental way that lets most of us off the hook – and at the same time, cuts us off from identification with, and therefore sympathy for, the most wretched victims of addiction.


There are, in truth, far more addicts than we think. Indeed, if we look at the matter squarely: we are pretty much all addicts. The official statistics on the consumption of hard drugs or alcohol don’t begin to give a fair representation of the issue.


We need to define addiction in a new way: addiction is the manic reliance on something, anything, in order to keep our dark or unsettling thoughts at bay. What properly indicates addiction is not what someone is addicted to, for we can get addicted to pretty much anything. It is the motives behind their reliance on it – and, in particular, their desire to avoid encountering the contents of their own mind.

Being inside our own minds is, for most of us, and very understandably, a deeply anxiety-inducing prospect. We are filled with thoughts we don’t want properly to entertain and feelings we are desperate not to feel. There is an infinite amount we are angry and sad about that it would take an uncommon degree of courage to face. We experience a host of fantasies and desires that we have a huge incentive to disavow, because of the extent to which they violate our self-image and our more normative commitments.

We shouldn’t pride ourselves because we aren’t injecting something into our veins. Almost certainly, we are doing something with equal commitment. We are checking the news at four minute intervals, to keep the news from ourselves at bay. We’re doing sport, exhausting our bodies in the hope of not having to hear from our minds. We’re using work to get away from the true internal work we’re shirking. The most compelling addictions sound very righteous to the world.



To get a measure of our levels of addiction, we need only consider when the last time might have been that we were able to sit alone in a room with our own thoughts, without distraction, free associating, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement.

We may start to see how much we have in common with the traditional addict. When we come face to face with them, we’re not meeting anything especially foreign, just a part of ourselves in a less respectable form – opening up new opportunities for kindness, towards them, and us.

We could start to think, too, of how we might wean ourselves off our chosen addictive pursuit. We need to lose our fear of our minds. We need a collective sense of safety around confronting loss, humiliation, sexual desire and sadness – knowing that we will have to keep running so long as we do not rehabilitate our feelings.

On the other side of addiction is, in a sense, philosophy – understood as the patient, unfrightened, compassionate examination of the contents of our own minds.

But perhaps the real, and most realistic goal, is not to expect that we can ever overcome all addiction forever: it’s simply to find our way to the least harmful and most beneficial kinds of addiction.

It sounds very strange to suggest that we might need to learn how to shop. We know we have to learn how to make money, but spending it is overwhelmingly understood to be the straightforward bit. The only conceivable problem is not having enough to spend.

Yet, when we’re out to buy a present for someone else, we can often see that we don’t quite know what would really please them. We wisely acknowledge that shopping for others is hugely tricky, but we don’t extend the same generous – and ultimately productive – recognition to shopping for ourselves.



Yet, a host of obstacles frequently prevents us from deploying our capital as accurately and fruitfully as we should – a serious matter, given just how much of our lives we sacrifice in the name of making money in the first place.

For a start, far more than we normally recognise, we’re guided by group instincts – which can tug us far from our own native inclinations. A major defence of capitalism has been the impressive notion that it provides us with unrivalled consumer choice and it can indeed seem as if the system actively caters to every possible nuance of taste. Yet, while seeming to provide for an apparently inexhaustible individuality, surprisingly standardised consumer patterns in fact dominate the economy.


Day-to-day, it feels like we are wholly in charge of our consumer decisions – but when we look back in history, we can see how strangely impersonal shopping choices really are. Our desires may feel intensely our own, yet they seem social creations first and foremost.

How else to explain why in the 1950s, so many people arrived – apparently by their own free will – at the feeling that orange was a properly appropriate colour for a sofa?


Or why in the 1960s, many otherwise very sober people spontaneously (yet simultaneously) discovered they were keen on tail fins on their cars.




Or why in the 1970s, almost everyone in the world was struck by the urge to buy shirts with very large collars.


The choices may well have suited many, but it is impossible not to believe that at least a few of those who shopped woke up from the age of wide shirt collars or orange sofas with a puzzled sense that they had been induced to want things which had precious little to do with who they were.

And yet at the same time, the fear of being thought strange prevents us from taking less socially-endorsed desires more seriously. We might, in our hearts, love to wear a pair of Wallabee shoes.



And we might – if left entirely to our own devices – not want to follow every customary detail in the script of how to arrange a holiday, celebrate a child’s birthday or prepare a dinner party, but we may be as shy here as we are with certain of our sexual desires. We are taught to think of ourselves as highly focused on our own pleasures, but most of our trouble stems from a quite opposite problem: just how tentative we are about taking our own feelings at all seriously.

It seems we are so much more distinctive than consumer society allows. It isn’t – as a certain political fantasies suppose – that our tastes are, in reality, truly simple, more that they are hugely varied and anomalous. We might be deep into middle age before we finally abandon the dominant story of what we’re meant to wear, eat, admire or ignore.


Part of the problem is that we lack the ability to know, looking back over experiences, what truly brought us pleasure. Our brains aren’t so keen on taking apart their satisfactions – and therefore plotting how to recreate them. If one asks a seven year old why they like a favourite TV programme, they will most likely find the question irritating. They just like it overall, they say. The idea of going into detail and realising that they find the relationship between the main character and their dog inspiring but the urban setting less appealing is very alien. We’re not natural critical dissectors of our own experience. It takes a long, arduous process of training before someone becomes an incisive literary critic or gets good at analysing their own reactions to a work of art. These moves force the mind to do an unnatural thing. And so, correspondingly, it feels strange and difficult to comb through the details of a holiday or a party or a relationship with a jacket or computer in a rigorous search for the pleasurable or painful elements which should ideally guide our expenditure going forward.

Our problems are compounded by the way that reviews are organised. A lot of cultural attention is paid to the business of choosing – but with one curious and significant limitation. It’s assumed we’re accurate in wanting to invest in a particular class of product, we just need help in choosing its best example. Reviews don’t question the overall aptness of looking to get a phone, a car or a hotel at the beach in southern Spain, they simply guide us to the best among these options. So the position of a single choice within an overall picture of a life falls outside their scope; the more complex trade-offs or opportunity costs aren’t considered. Despite the plethora of reviews, we lack organised, prestigious support for the existential decisions that sit above any single consumer commitment. No wonder we get muddled.


Finally, though the things we buy might truly be lovely, our pleasure is hugely vulnerable to our inner emotional climate. All the advantages of a resort hotel can be destroyed by an argument. Loneliness destroys the charm of any of the clothes we might buy. And yet, somehow, the idea of our dependence on emotional factors that lie outside the purchase remains curiously elusive whenever we are at the till.

None of this means that we shouldn’t shop; or expend so much energy on our consumption. Quite the opposite. It isn’t that we are too focused on shopping, we are not thinking deeply and precisely enough about what we’re doing. We haven’t yet learnt to be doggedly precise enough about pinning down our own fun and making sure we get it.

Business is focused on addressing a multitude of human needs; for everything from Jelly Babies to cardiac surgery to nuclear technology to hand soap dispensers.

Because human needs are so wide ranging, and span such a multitude of different appetites and desires, it can be useful to divide these needs into three broad categories – and then even arrange them up a distinctive sort of ladder:


This way of cutting up our needs signals the different parts of the mind and body that a given business may be appealing to – and allows one to segment organisations in the commercial landscape according to what needs they service.

The ladder also lets us observe how the needs that businesses tackle have changed over time. From the dawn of humanity until around 1750 in Western Europe, the servicing of Core Needs constituted the dominant share of all business activity. The limited technological resources of societies meant that the end of work was – by and large – just about keeping people alive in a very minimal sense: survival was the priority of business.


But from 1750 onwards, we see businesses starting to address the next stage up the ladder. On an ever increasing scale, they began to focus on what we are calling Comfort Needs: this is the age when, for the first time in Britain, department stores opened and offered customers a range of linens, fashionable clothes and furnishings. Newspapers began to be read on a wide scale; there was a growth in publishing – and an expansion in inns and coffee houses. Commerce became angled towards the satisfaction of the tastes of a growing middle class.

That leaves the final and most ambitious category: Flourishing Needs. It is only very recently that these have appeared on the commercial horizon. The needs have of course been around since pre-history, but they hadn’t until very recently been thought of as something that commerce could get involved with, commodify, sell and draw profit from. It was left up to other forces – religion and the arts predominantly – to cater for them, either outside of the mainstream economy or on a very artisanal, sporadic basis. Then, in the 1960s, beginning in Madison Avenue in New York, advertising began to recognise and think of these needs. The advertising industry didn’t quite deliver on the needs, but it knew what they were, for it appealed to them with systematic rigour when selling Comfort and Core Needs. It is in this era that it began to be typical to sell cars with allusions to love – and to encourage people to buy drinks with subtle references to a sense of sexiness and belonging.


The big prediction for the coming century is that enormous opportunities will open up for businesses that can skilfully address our Flourishing Needs. Technology, the wealth of nations and the shift in public taste will make this very likely. A great many of the multi-billion dollar companies of the future will be those focused on the fulfilment of flourishing needs: our need for self-knowledge around love, our desire for a satisfying social life, or our need for resilience. Bits of the tech sector are already nibbling at the borderline between Comfort and Flourishing needs, a trend aided by the forthcoming development of Artificial Emotional Intelligence. This, rather than the economies of developing nations, are what constitute the truly ‘emerging markets’ of the future.

Core and Comfort Needs will, of course, continue to play a huge role in the economy; but for the first time in history, it is Flourishing Needs that will begin to provide major opportunities for the organisational genius, commodifying power and muscle of business. Some of the most profitable businesses of the future will be those that understand the trickier, more elusive needs of our hearts and souls that have hitherto eluded the grasp of commerce. We will be the richer for it, in every sense.

We are always making consumption decisions: where to go on holiday; which handbag to purchase; which mortgage lender to go to; what style of socks or make of car to buy; what to have for lunch. We don’t normally spell it out, but each decision is a shot at understanding ourselves in some sector of existence, big or small.  The range of our options is inevitably constrained but ideally, in exercising choice, we are promoting our happiness to the greatest possible extent. Even apparently modest things like what we put in the trolley in the supermarket or what shoes we wear are distillations of large, nebulous notions: who we think we are, how we wish to live and what we think will contribute to our well being. From different directions, all our actions as consumers are tapping into the same central question: what will make me happy?


We tend to think of consumption going badly or well mainly around price. We get annoyed with ourselves for spending too much. Or we’re really pleased if we pick up a bargain. 

But there’s another way things can go wrong around consumption choices. We choose the wrong things because we don’t know ourselves well enough to select what will best work for us.


It can initially sound like a strange and rather insulting idea. How can you possible say that I am not qualified to know what I want? The idea that we might have a shortfall of self-knowledge around purchasing decisions can feel offensive. 

The pursuit of happiness through personal choice is a key notion of modern capitalism. And it is tied to a critical – but rarely admitted – assumption, which is that we already naturally have enough self knowledge and a good enough grasp of our true needs  to make the right choices for ourselves.


© Flickr/Elvis Payne

But the problem is that self-knowledge isn’t as easy and obvious as we might naturally suppose. With hindsight, we can sometimes see we’ve made mistaken choices. One ends up thinking things like:

– I thought I’d be wearing that dress all the time, in fact it’s hardly left the wardrobe.

– I seriously underestimated how stressed the mortgage would make me.

– I thought moving to the country would be great, but I just can’t stand being cut off from my old friends.

– What am I doing in Croatia at the beach! 

The regrets could be summed up as the thought: if I’d known myself better at the time I’d have made a different decision.


It’s natural at times to blame ourselves for these mistakes. But really we’re more deserving of sympathy than criticism, because there are some pretty serious obstacles to the necessary consumer self-knowledge. Here are a few of these obstacles:

One: We track prestige too much

What we think we want is produced culturally. We’re strongly inclined to take our cues from other people – and to take to heart whatever has prestige in our society. We see this – with comic clarity – in societies far from our own, especially those in the past. There were times and places where adolescent boys were desperately excited by the idea of possessing a walking stick.


Aged fourteen, they’d long for the day when they too could tap the pavement with an ebony cane. It seems funny in retrospect, but it is really just evidence about the power of prestige. We naturally want the things that convey social status – though, of course, what things have prestige changes dramatically over time.

Prestige is a problem when the things that enjoy prestige are not the ones that happen to serve our own best interests. We are so dependent on the regard of others, we may well forget the signals from deep within us that are hinting to us that we are not actually happy with the standard paths being proposed.

NPG P869(7); Cyril Connolly by Cecil Beaton

 © Cecil Beaton Studio Archive, Sotheby’s London

In the late winter of 1961, the portly literary critic Cyril Connolly wrote an article in the Sunday Times about his recent holiday to Barbados. And in it he took a brave decision. He decided to tell the wider world about his passion for snorkelling. Since then (and partly thanks to him) it no longer seems very strange for a seriously minded middle aged individual to don a rubber mask and a special breathing tube and bob around looking at cuttlefish and unusual kinds of seaweed. But at the time it was a very unusual activity indeed. There must have been a great many serious people who in fact would have liked it, if they had given it a go. Connolly was distinctive in the degree to which he was aware of his own needs and pleasures and was prepared to accord them time and respect; his snorkelling activities were connected to self-knowledge. It’s a tiny instance of a huge issue. We don’t automatically know ourselves well enough to know what we’d like. And specifically we are put off by anything that seems potentially odd. We generally fail to trust ourselves over the habits of other people.

Two: We have difficulty registering self-data 

Generally speaking, attention is selective. You might have walked past an old building many times; then someone mentions that the chimney is an usual shape. You must have seen this on countless occasions – in the sense that your eyes had flitted over the roofline – but not actually noted it. It’s a reminder of something slightly disconcerting about how our minds work.

We often have fleeting sensations of pleasure or disappointment which we are marginally aware of, but don’t focus on. For instance:

– The indicator in a particular kind of car makes a strangely attractive clicking sound.

– Some cutlery designs feel nicer to hold than others.

– The sleeves of a jacket are slightly too long.

– It could be very nice just to eat a cheese sandwich at a restaurant.


We may have these sensations in a subliminal way, but don’t pay much attention to them. Later someone else might point what the lovely or annoying thing was that was going on. And with their help we learn to see more clearly what we want or don’t want. We get to know ourselves a little better in some part of existence. In principle, this is something we can do for ourselves. We don’t have to wait on the chance fact of another person guiding our attention more carefully. But we generally fail to act on our spontaneous feelings.

Three: We underrate the long-term

The present instant looms extremely large in consciousness. But our choices will have lasting repercussions. In theory, we know this perfectly well. Yet, with shocking regularity, we make decisions based on the mood of the moment, which turns out to misrepresent our better long-term interests. 

It’s not so surprising we have this tendency. The human mind developed to tackle short-horizon problems. In a more precarious world than we inhabit now, this makes perfect sense. For hundreds of thousands of years the primary issue was to make sure you could survive the next 24 hours. That’s the mentality we’ve largely inherited. The long-range, strategic mind is less closely connected to our appetites and emotions. 

Four: Our habits are responses to earlier problems

At critical moments of development we take up attitudes which enable us to cope with certain problems.



One’s father may have been stymied in his career and so any conspicuous success would look like a criticism of him. It seemed at that time necessary to disdain any expensive item. So later on, one feels compelled to order the least expensive dish in a restaurant or wear only very modest clothes, even though there’s a part of oneself that might relish homard american or an elegant winter coat. But because of the pressure of the past, these areas of self-knowledge don’t get explored.

Having in the past suffered from not being able to afford things, one might develop a compensatory strategy of insisting always on luxury. It’s an attempt to fix an early humiliation. It can easily continue to override a more accurate assessment of one’s needs. One is still warding off a worry of ten years ago rather than carefully sifting one’s current needs.




These four big factors make it tricky for the mind to know itself. It’s very unfortunate, but not surprising, that it can take so long to sift through them and slowly arrive at self-knowledge. There is information inside our minds that the conscious self doesn’t have easy access to, though this information is central to the project of finding out what we want. 

If perfect self-knowledge markets existed, it would be possible to readily generate satisfaction. Unfortunately, we are very far from possessing anything like perfect self-knowledge. Our predictable failures of self-knowledge have large and very unfortunate consequences for the economy. 

Demand is geared towards things that don’t produce happiness

When people don’t understand themselves very well (by understand, we mean, don’t understand the path to eudaimonia), then what happens is: we misunderstand our own needs and make purchase that are misguided: that is, that fail to lead to what we ourselves are aiming at – our own happiness.


Work is low in meaning

Because meaningful work can be defined as work that properly enhances the wellbeing of others, if we sense that others don’t actually need what we’re involved in producing and perhaps would – if their self-knowledge were greater – actually reject it, we are left with a nagging undercurrent of suspicion: one’s labours are sadly counter-productive. One feels a subterranean sense of shame. One edges towards cynicism.  

Opportunities for job and wealth creation are missed 

The evolution of new and very important industries depends upon enough people recognising that they need and want things that hitherto have not been on offer. At its best, this would mean a better-targeted offering that had an important contribution to make to people’s pursuit of eudaimonia – a happy life. But successful innovation of this kind relies on there being a sufficiently large receptive audience; a large enough constituency of people with the requisite bit of self-knowledge in place – so they have an appetite for the new product or service. 



Problems around self-knowledge lead to problems in the economy. And one big idea starts to look tempting: does this show we should start dismantling our present economy, built around freedom of choice, and try to replace it with one that’s more directed – one that limits the scope given to the individual? That was tried in the Soviet Union and other places. It clearly doesn’t work…

The other option is to address our problems around self-knowledge. This is more hopeful for two reasons.

One: We’ve got lots of evidence that self-knowledge can be improved; only, up to now, the process happens in a slightly haphazard way. It’s far from impossible, only it’s not organised. 

FR Society 29: Couple Shopping in Paris

Two: Gains in self-knowledge benefit the individual, because (as we’ve been saying) a gain in self-knowledge is really a gain in knowledge about how to live a happier life.

And this is one of the principal routes along which we could collectively advance towards a much better economy. Governments are hugely committed to improving the economy and direct vast resources to this task. They should be turning a lot of attention to the philosophical question: how can we improve consumer self-knowledge to maximise the chances of consumption going well?


Assistance around self-knowledge would most usefully come from the company of a wise friend: In their absence, we may have to do it ourselves. 

Ideally, the thinking-friend asks a range of carefully targeted questions and listens carefully to our answers. But on our own, it’s possible to recreate this beneficial experience by listing some central questions and writing answers to them. 

Below, we set out certain questions which provide a framework for self-knowledge. 

You and Money

– Do you get anxious at any point in your financial life? Elaborate …

– Who in your past had the best relationship to money in your eyes? Describe their attitudes.

– Who had a problematic attitude? What was going wrong?

– How much money do you need? What do you need it for? Be as precise as possible.

– Do you think some people have more money than they need? Explain your answer.


– What have been your worst financial decisions? What was the mistake? Why did you make them? What lessons should you draw? Have you been able to fully absorb the lesson? If not, what is the difficulty?

– To what extent do you link your economic status to the idea of a successful life (to what extent do you link money and happiness)?

– How well (or badly) do you deal with financial administration in your own life? If this is less than ideal, describe your troubles. Why do you think you have them? In theory, how could you improve this? In reality, why don’t you?

– Do you waste money? Go into detail … Describe one instance. Why did you do this?

You and Travel

– In fantasy, what would be your ideal holiday? Elaborate as much as possible. What is it about this that appeals so much to you?


– What has in fact been your best travel experience? Go into detail. What was it about this that went so well? Why doesn’t it happen more often? If you could bottle an insight here, what would it be? How seriously do you take this insight?

– What would your ideal traveling companion be like?

– Why do you travel? When travel is voluntary, what motivates you? To what degree are these motives fulfilled? 

You and Technology

– Does anything stress you or annoy you around technology?  Go into detail …


– Do you ever feel you should have a digital detox? What does that phrase suggest to you?

– Do you feel you waste time online? If so, describe a typical way this happens.

– Imagine your ideal relationship to technology. Describe it. What stops this happening in your life?

– What machine would properly help you to live the way you’d like? Do you have it?

Your Relationships

– What was your parents’ relationship like? To what extent has that influenced your ideas about what can go well or badly around consumption? To what degree have you learned good lessons from that history?


– In what ways might you be a difficult person to live with?

– How open are you to being educated/changed by another person?

– Do you have a strict template of your ideal partner? How is that going? Why do you have this particular template?

– In secret, how loveable do you consider yourself to be?

– In what way could you be a better partner? Realistically, why don’t you change?

– What degree of imperfection can you tolerate? Go into detail around how you have actually accomplished this?

You and Food

– Who in your childhood had the strongest influence on what you ate?


– Describe their influence at the time.

– What kinds of food do you especially like? Describe your enjoyment. What is it about them that pleases you?

– Are you happy with your diet? Say more about this …

– How do you eat when no-one is around? Be very honest.

– What’s your ideal restaurant/cafe like?

– Do you feel you spend too much/too little on food? Why do you do this?

– If you could change one thing about what you eat, what would it be? Realistically, why don’t you do this?

– Describe your ideal meal with friends.

– Does anyone (or anything) irritate you about food? Who (or what) and why?

– What do you feel about your weight?

You and Work

– When you were a child, what did you imagine work might be like? Where did these ideas come from? In retrospect, how do you feel about those early ideas?


 © Flickr/Peter Voerman

– Have you had a job that you particularly disliked? What specifically was wrong with it?

– What is your ideal job? Realistically, what are the obstacles?

You and Clothes

– Have you ever felt intimidated by any seller in a clothes shop? What do you fear might happen? What is the origin of this anxiety?


– If no one in the world could know, how would you ideally like to dress?

– What messages do you think your clothes send to other people? Is this the message you wish to send?

– If you had to wear the same clothes everyday, what would your uniform be?

– Do you spend too much or too little on clothes?

– To what extent do you judge other people by their clothes?

– In your childhood, were there any stand-out experiences around clothes?

– How did you feel about the way your parents (or other people in your childhood) dressed? What’s your view of them now?

– What goes well (or badly) around fashion? Refer as much as possible to people you know well.

You and Home

– What was your home like when you were growing up?



 © Flickr/Peter Voerman

– What’s your ideal of home?

– What are your secret hopes and fears around how others might judge your home? Where have these hopes and fears come from?

– Do you ever feel dismayed or excited by the places your friends live? Go into detail.

– How do you feel about being tidy? When you hear the word ‘tidy’ what do you think of? Why does that association come to mind?