Volunteering and the Subtle Economy: Promises of Connectedness

Acquiring stuff doesn't make you as happy as it promises it what to do with that urge to shop?

As the holiday machine gears up for another shopping season, it's fairly easy to decode the messages all around: buy buy buy. Embedded within the advertisement for a new watch, the latest computer, or a shiny car, is the promise for something less tangible but much more valuable: lasting memories, popularity, connectedness. If our current economy is based upon a ceaseless consumption machine, it is this subtler economy of intangible promises that drives that machine. Nevertheless, there is a way to step out of the cycle.

We as a society are increasingly vulnerable to bait-and-switch advertisements promising fulfillment because Americans are far more socially isolated than they were 20 years ago, according to a Duke University study reported in the Washington Post. When a quarter of the population has no one in whom they can confide their troubles, the very act of shopping  becomes a way to connect with other people. In rural communities or areas where there are no other social outlets, the mall is the major place to congregate. There's Something Social Happening at the Mall, a study by the Journal of Business and Psychology, suggests that "the mall attracts consumers because it may be a magnet for social behavior and may reinforce consumer behavior by its sociability."

While teenagers are the stereotypical "mall rats," compulsively seeking stimulation among the bright displays and the crowds, our culture as a whole has packed a lot of meaning into the shopping mall. Read Beth Gill's excellent essay, Temples of Consumption: Shopping Malls as Secular Cathedrals, to learn more about these consumer spaces where, with "the spectrum of international product lines, the mall is one of the few places where one comes in direct contact with the world system. It is also within the mall that we find dramatized the classificatory solidarity of a society where all social relations are understood as market transactions."

The formula of consumption as balm for social and spiritual ills has been relied upon even in our country's darkest times. As discussed in a previous post, in one of the presidential debates President-Elect Obama remarked upon George W. Bush's response to the September 11 attacks. "'Go out and shop'…That wasn’t the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for.”

Of course, what Americans were looking for at a time of extreme uncertainty was not to be found at the shopping mall, in a place designed to keep the consumer unsatisfied and therefore coming back for more. Just like after 9/11, in these shaky economic times we all have a need for connectedness, and tighter budgets needn't prevent us from finding it. Instead of engaging in communal consumption, we can follow the example of the more than 60 million Americans who did volunteer work last year.

Volunteering can take many forms, from face-to-face service at a homeless shelter to staffing a crisis hotline to building a website for a nonprofit. Any of these relationships can bring much satisfaction to the volunteer. Many studies track the health benefits of volunteering, among them a reduced rate of depression among those engaged in some type of community service. Volunteering is not only good for the individual, it's good for the economy. If the economic crisis requires us to look for previously untapped resources to turn into our victory gardens, then volunteering may just be one of those overlooked riches. While volunteer labor is not included in most economic measures, Burton Allen Weisbrod's book The Nonprofit Economy estimates that "volunteers constitute a major resource to the economy as a whole and that they are enormously important in health, education, and social services." Further, the unpaid labor devoted to the nonprofit sector is almost as large as the paid labor. Thus, a significant portion of the population is already engaged in lending their labor to the greatest needs in our society and contributing to the economy.

Whether you're listening to the empty promises of holiday ads or the gloomy economic forecast, don't get bogged down by what you can't afford or can't comprehend. Think of what you can do. By lending a hand where it's needed you can contribute--without having to spend a dime.

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