The New Value of Value Consciousness

Which is easier: trying to make healthy food choices when you’re surrounded by people who value nutrition and find creative ways to enjoy food, or trying to make healthy choices when you’re in the midst of folks who binge on transfats and disdain calorie counts?

It takes a lot of effort to moderate our desire for gratification – not just with food but in all areas. It helps when our efforts are seen as positive, valuable, and are reflected by others in our social context.

This is why it is so interesting to me how the media has pivoted lately in their coverage of personal finance stories. People have been in financial distress for years. Years. The unsustainable rises in housing prices, coupled with massive amounts of consumer debt and student loans have been akin to a thin person with 90% blocked arteries. Just because you can fit into a size 2 doesn’t mean you’re healthy, darling.

It’s hard to put yourself on a debt diet when you feel like you’re the only one who has to watch what you spend. But now that we are in a recession, budgeting and frugality suddenly have positive social value. I see evidence of this in how the media has begun to favor stories about efforts to manage family costs over pro-consumption pieces. Open the paper or watch the news, and you will see article after article about how generics are beating name brands and the top ten hot new ways to save.

If you agree that the economic trouble is not new, then how do we explain the new frame?

I think there are two major forces in play. Number one, the problems have reached critical massDenial can no longer protect us from being aware of threatening material without great damage to the collective self. What kind of society would we be if we didn’t pay attention to the record number of foreclosures and utility shut-offs? It would seem callous and insensitive to celebrate free-wheeling spending when thousands of people are in crisis.

Number two, when the challenges are external and commonly felt, then the locus of the problemshifts. The experience is no longer framed as “I struggle with the price of gas (because I personally have no money)” but rather “The price of gas is a problem.” When the cause is externalized the ego can still preserve the self as good, and thus activities of problem-solving are seen as good as well. Living on a budget goes from being ego dystonic to being ego syntonic.

This shift in how our media frames the issue may seem incidental to how we as individuals experience it, but it is actually of profound significance. In modern society media serves as the closest thing we have to a collective voice. When that voice does not reflect – with sympathy and affirmation – the individual’s struggle, then the struggle becomes a source of shame and steps to resolve the struggle are usually inhibited.

I think that we as a nation are ready to embrace the ideals of economic contraction. I want to be careful here. I do not suggest in any way that any person enjoys financial distress. Economic troubles are painful and the crises are real. Rather, going back to the point I made earlier I believe these troubles have been present for a long time and it has been a source of unconscious frustration that they’re been rather ambivalently acknowledged. For the past five years at least, people’s anxiety about the economy has been met with encouragement to go out and spend more or to just find another credit product to tide them over until… something (that part was never quite answered).

A brief sidebar – the growth of the Green Movement, especially among the higher income strata, constitutes an interesting complement to the rise in value consciousness. Because the movement promotes conservation as part of ecological stewardship, even those who don’t experience personal economic strain can still demonstrate support of activities of sustainable (lowered) consumption.

In a way, I think people are a bit exhausted by the prolonged pressure to consume. Deficit spending is anxiety-producing, and the individual members of society have been containing those feelings in isolation for too long. Being value conscious is suddenly the thing to be, and I am glad of it.