Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay

This is part of my Decluttering Toolbox.

“Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

When I was a kid, my family subscribed to The Mercury News, a daily newspaper in San Jose, CA. I ignored the newspaper except for a few comics and the weather report. That is until November of each year when the Sunday edition overflowed with toy catalogs.

I spent hours combing through ads from Toys “R” Us, Target, and Kmart. With a blue Bic pen, I circled things I wanted for Christmas and scribbled three stars next to my “most wanted” things. I dog-eared pages and wasted countless hours daydreaming about new toys.

At the same time, I lost interest in the toys I had—the ones from last year’s Christmas haul. They were rubbish compared to the items pictured in the catalogs. In retrospect, it’s kind of strange that I was more excited about toys I didn’t have than the ones I did.

Thanks to TV ads and movie product placements, there was always something new to want. When I was 12, I wanted a Talkboy voice recorder. I first saw it in Home Alone 2 (1992) and was amazed. You could playback recordings at half-speed, which made your voice sound totally different! A few months after I saw the movie in theaters, I saw television ads for a Talkboy. And I just had to have one.

So I told my parents that’s what I wanted for Christmas. I remember them looking at me like, “Really? You want that?” A few weeks later, I lost interest in the recorder and wanted a remote control car instead.

Growing up, advertisements bombarded my little brain. They pushed a subtle yet clear agenda: “What you have is rubbish. Don’t be the only kid who doesn’t have this shiny thing.”

Today, things aren’t any better. They’re actually worse. Advertisers’ messaging is still the same, but the volume is amplified. Every aspect of our lives is awash in personalized advertising, which trains us to be dissatisfied with what we have.

Now the commonly preached solution is to practice gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal and recite the mantra, “I’m grateful for what I have… I’m grateful for what I have…” And when your kids lament how they lack the latest gadget, tell them to be more grateful. (Because that always works!)

To be clear, I have nothing against gratitude—it’s a useful tool. But it will only take you so far. The real culprit is advertising.

Like, imagine you’re in a crowd, and someone starts shooting an automatic rifle. (Unfortunately, this has become more common in the US.) At that moment, a kevlar vest would be invaluable. But you wouldn’t go searching for a vest to shield you from a bullet traveling Mach 2. You’d duck down and sprint away from the shooter!

Similarly, ads present a real danger to our mental health and happiness. They whisper-shout, “Your life sucks—buy this!” And they manufacture desires that we didn’t have 5 minutes before. Now, gratitude can be a wonderful shield in a pinch, but it’s not a long-term solution. The only remedy is to choke off the source of our dissatisfaction: advertising.

We must excise advertising from our day-to-day experience. So I recommend you:

  • Watch TV without ads (or not at all)
  • Install AdBlock in your browsers
  • Unsubscribe from promotional emails
  • Get off social media and connect with people in real life
  • Stop physical junk mail
  • Add your phone number to the National Do Not Call Registry
  • Stop surfing Amazon, Slick Deals, and Ben’s Bargains.
    (Find a better way to handle boredom!)
  • Run a Pi-hole DNS-based ad blocker
    (Requires technical capability)

Now, it may not seem like it, but you and I live in the greatest time to be alive. In all of human history. But so many of us can’t see how good things are because we are completely dissatisfied with what we have. We’ve become disgruntled with the lives we lead. And the leading culprit is advertising. Cut this one thing from your life, and you’ll feel much happier.