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Identity, Habit and Happiness

Identity is an important part of being human. But in an online world full of perfect pictures, and with many of us now split between our true selves and an online persona, maintaining an identity that is simply not real can become habitual, harmful and unsustainable.

Why do we buy things? Well, of course, we need some things in order to survive – shelter, food, drink, warm clothes, fuel and medicine to name a few. Other things enable us to contribute to society and better ourselves, such as books, stationary, sports equipment, art supplies and computers. Beyond that, we buy things to make our lives more convenient, such as cars and non-essential electronics.

But once all of these bases are covered, material items are purchased so that we can form an identity. We use the clothes we wear, the brand of essential items we buy, the cars we drive and the music we listen to in order to paint a portrait of ourselves. Our inward nature is expressed through the things that we outwardly buy, wear and use.

This is an important aspect of being human. Having an identity makes us interesting. Our identity can give us a sense of belonging and at the same time a feeling of uniqueness. In a modern sense, identity is the ultimate form of expression. We are no longer doomed to feudal servitude, and many of us no longer find belonging in religion. We have the luxury of self-expression, and we have every right to use it.

Identity also plays an important role in our habits. This is seen as especially true of habits linked to goals and core values. Identity, or the perception of our ideal self, can be used to drop bad habits and develop good ones, by associating the effects of a habit with an outcome central to our core values. We aspire to be healthy and in good shape, so we habitually exercise. We value the environment, so we reduce our consumption.

On the other hand, identity can also perpetuate what many would see as bad habits. Smoking may once have been linked to a ‘cool’ identity. Another good example of this is the idea that somebody who has built an identity around an expensive lifestyle will develop a spending habit in order to maintain this lifestyle and associated identity, even if such a lifestyle is unsustainable. Such a habit can be catastrophic when circumstances render an expensive lifestyle unobtainable, often forcing the holder into debt.

While the modern importance of identity is clear, identity has ancient roots. It is a result of natural selection. Our brains are built to favour identity because it has allowed us to survive and thrive as a species. We are social animals, and identity has always been used to cement social bonds when forming groups, tribes and civilisations. Identifying with fellow group members would also have been beneficial on the field of battle, where it is necessary to know who is friend and who is foe.

Using non-essential items to solidify our identity would once have increased our survival chances too. Material things are used to reinforce status and power, things which could be the difference between being elected to a position of power or not. A tribal leader, a governor or even a modern politician is more likely to find it easy to survive than somebody of lower status.

Additionally, material items have can be used as a way to woo others, like a male bird of paradise with its wonderful plumage, a well-dressed person is more likely to appear attractive to a mate. And again, an aura of wealth, status or power is attractive because it portrays security to a potential partner, increasing their survival chance and that of any children they may one day have. Furthering our genetics is one of the most important things to the survival of the human race, and as such our brains are hard-wired to look for ways to make this more likely.

Using material things to impress others is still very much the done thing. Many people, myself included, are prone to buying things which we perceive as impressive and ensure that people are all too aware that we own such things. Wearing a new shirt on a night out and getting that all important group photograph to post on social media is a great example of this. Like our ancient ancestors, we are social animals and are hardwired to want to impress potential others, and the approval gained from an online like is a very welcome way to trigger the dopamine rushes in our brain’s reward centre that our most ancient ancestors would have received.

The world of social media has taken the once local need to impress others and made it global. We now have an online identity too. The pressure for this online identity to be desirable and impressive is colossal. When we see how wonderful the online identity of our favourite celebrities or influencers are, the pressure is compounded, and we often feel an unrealistic aspiration to create an identity and a life for ourselves that is not possible or does not even exist for those we admire. This is both unhealthy and unsustainable.

Brands will literally give away hundreds, if not thousands of pounds worth of goods to celebrities because they know that this will manipulate thousands of others, at the mercy of their primal instincts and addictions, to purchase the same products

We may also buy things because of their exclusivity. Even if we have to pay well over the odds to acquire a rare item, we will. By exploiting the laws of market economics and human nature both at once, companies have a sure-fire way of boosting the price of limited release products.

With well over seven billion people on Earth and thousands of years of human history behind us, it is understandable that we search for ways to stand out and be original. In the modern world, uniqueness is a method of appealing to others and being noticed, something that we value highly as a social animal.

We will go to great lengths to form our identity, and we will spend vast sums of money to be unique, special, or even to simply fit in. This is fine. Identity is important and identity makes us happy. But when social media sets unrealistic standards for how we should identify and for how we should appear to others, it becomes unhealthy. As a result, our spending habits and consumption of goods for appearance’s sake becomes unsustainable.

If we have to strain and worry about our identity this much, to mould ourselves to meet expectations, and to spend outside of our means to maintain the lifestyle associated with our chosen identity, then that identity is not a true one. It is so important to be aware of what is real and what is not and to live our own lives in honesty. By allowing ourselves to be changed and pressurised by expectations we are harming ourselves. By allowing ourselves to be at the whim of short-term trends and fashions we are harming the planet. And by painting a false picture of ourselves online we are only perpetuating an issue which is detrimental to the mental health of millions.

But by thinking carefully about what we share and acting against our natural desire to always be adored by asking ourselves why we are buying something, or posting something online, we can make happiness a priority and help to dismantle a society which has placed great value in vast quantities of material goods.