Updated on 01.19.11

The Lifestyle You Want

Trent Hamm

For the first time in quite a while, I was watching a live program on television, meaning I couldn’t just skip the commercial breaks if I so chose. As I sat there watching the advertisements, I began to realize something interesting.

Almost all of them painted a picture of some sort of idealized lifestyle.

I watched a minivan commercial that laid out some sort of idealized version of parenting.

I watched a body spray (I think that’s what the product was) commercial that laid out some sort of early twentysomething clubbing fantasy.

I watched a travel commercial that seemed to lay out some sort of “girls out on the town” dream.

There were similar beverage commercials and other product commercials that did exactly the same thing: they simply painted a quick sketch of some sort of “better than reality” version of someone’s lifestyle or significant aspect of their lifestyle.

Sure, some people might jump on these commercials and immediately rush out to buy the product, but I don’t think that’s the real problem with them. Most people have enough sense to realize that these are just marketing pitches.

The problem comes from the sheer repetition of them and the image they spell out of an unattainable lifestyle.

The parenting-themed ads have seemingly well-rested parents, cute and well-maintained children, and an affluent lifestyle. I haven’t been that well-rested since 2005.

The young adult ads show highly attractive people in a club scene. The last few times I was at a club, it was probably a good thing that it was so dark.

The last time I had a “boy’s night out,” we wound up sitting around a table playing cards and shooting the breeze. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside of a limousine.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t really care about these lifestyles. For the last few years, I’ve been genuinely happy with my own life.

Several years ago, I wasn’t that happy with my life. Unsurprisingly, it also coincided with a period where I spent far too much money on things.

In the end, I spent those years aspiring to some sort of different lifestyle. I knew that where I was at now didn’t make me happy, so I spent a lot of time and money seeking something that would bring me more happiness.

Lo and behold, these advertisements are serving that desire on a silver platter!

In fact, it’s not even so much the products that are being sold in these specific ads that convinces people to buy more than they should. It’s the notion that, yes, your particular lifestyle can be better than it is now.

When you have that notion in your head – that your current lifestyle isn’t good enough in some way – one of the easiest ways to attempt to fix it is to buy more stuff.

Think about this whole picture for a second and you come around to some interesting truths.

First, if you’re unhappy with your life, buying stuff won’t change that. Replacing the stuff around you with “better” versions of the same stuff doesn’t change your life (outside of a short term thrill). It just continues the same old life.

Instead, if you’re unhappy with your life, only a change in what you do can really fix it. This may involve changing your circle of friends. It may involve how you spend an ordinary day. It may involve switching jobs. It may involve radical changes of your spending habits. It may involve a visit with your doctor. Buying more stuff won’t be the fix.

For me, I realized at some point that most of my actions were simply causing short bursts of happiness that quickly gave way to an unhappy life underneath. Buying something new caused a burst of happiness that vanished quickly, as did many of my social activities. It wasn’t until I started focusing on why I was unhappy underneath (and a lot of that had to do with a sense that I was somehow inadequate) that I started turning that ship around. I spent far less money and felt far more happy – and I still do.

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  1. Beth Ann says:

    Just last night I made my dream life wish list–this is perfect timing to remind me that not only do I not need more stuff, but every time I buy said stuff I get further from the life I really want.

  2. Kathryn says:

    Of all the posts of yours I’ve read, this is the one that has resonated most with me. Thanks, Trent!

  3. Barry says:

    I could not agree with you more and if you really want to get scared take a look at some of the shows and movies that are targeted at kids .One of the first things that goes through my mind is. What is this doing to their perception of reality?

  4. They have clubs in Iowa? ;)

  5. chuck says:

    yikes, i think i can identify the ads you mention and even some of the phrases in them. maybe time for me to turn off the tv.

  6. anne says:

    Great post! I can definitely relate.

  7. Jeannine says:

    One of the ads I really take offense to is the new Toyota Highlander campaign – the one with the boy who is commenting about how his friends’ parents drive lame cars. Because it isn’t enough to have marketing geared towards kids for food and toys. Now our children are supposed to have an opinion about the kind of car they are riding around in – how about you just be happy that you’re not riding public transportation home from school!

  8. David C says:

    Fantastic post. It took me a few years to realize that “things” couldn’t make me happy.

    I can understand how these commercials can create a false reality. After seeing commercials for Axe and/or Tag, wherein the male that was sprayed with this potent (smelling, at least) substance would be swarmed with hot, scantily clad ladies, my teenage son decided to give it a go. Results have not been anywhere near those of the commercial, to his dismay.

  9. David C says:

    Jeannine #7


  10. Angie says:

    I cannot stand those Highlander commercials either! That little boy is obnoxious and it makes me not want to buy a Highlander.

    Aside from that, I have had a fabulous night with my girls at a club in Vegas when I was single (which I could afford), and it’s a great memory now that I’m married and a mommy. Sometimes it’s about your priorities at the stage in life you’re at.

  11. Carmen says:

    Agreed. Highlander commercials are incredibly obnoxious. Will never buy one.

  12. Nancy says:

    He/She who buys stuff has to take care of it…

  13. moom says:

    Ford have an ad series like that in Australia. In general though I think American advertising pushes image and lifestyle to sell products. In the UK advertisers try to be funny in my experience. In Australia seems pretty eclectic.

  14. Tara C says:

    This is an awesome post – I can totally relate to this feeling. I have been feeling very dissatisfied with my life direction for many years and finally got up the gumption to work towards actually changing it. I am hoping it will help me not want to spend so much once I’m happier!

  15. Danna says:

    I love how grounded you are with your life, Trent. As an empty nester I’ve been restless, not knowing what to do with myself. So, I’ve gone back to school (love it) and have found some awesome friends who don’t care about how I look, where I live or what I drive. They just love hanging out with me. AAHHH…life is so sweet.

    Oh and I finally have an emergency fund!!!

  16. PF says:

    Wow, I love this post. It took me a long time to realize that having the latest and greatest wasn’t what it was all about, but I’m happier now trying to find was to make better with what I have.

    There was a time with my group of friends that eash “boys night” had to be better than the last, they turned into “boys weekend” and “Boys 5 days” we were lavish and over the top, but in the end, we had just as much fun hanging at a house with eachother and some games to play.

  17. Sonja says:

    Exactly right! I am the only lady in my circle of friends that has not re-done her kitchen. My counter tops are formica laminate, not granite and my appliances are white, not stainless steel. But my kitchen is clean and everything works. Ironically, I am the only one of these women that cooks pretty much all the meals at home.

  18. Kevin says:

    If you look a little closer, you’ll see it not just in the commercials, but in the shows themselves. I’ve long blamed shows like “Friends” for establishing unrealistic expectations in today’s youths.

    I mean think about it. You had 6 young people with relatively limited means (waittress, struggling actor, etc.), living in gorgeous, huge apartments in downtown New York, with all the free time in the world.

    Or “Desperate Housewives.” How do these people drive huge BMW SUV’s and live in huge houses in picturesque suburbia on an elementary school teacher’s salary? It’s insane!

  19. Rachel says:

    I accept adevertising for just what it is, advertising, and they do what they have to to sell product. But this is where I struggle, and it’s strange. When I am at church. We are middle income, comfortable and our needs are met. I am sort of a jeans, sneakers kinds of a housewife. I don’t have a lot of jewelry and no trendy clothes. But when I go to church I see all these women who are wearing fabulous outfits, have acrylic nails, beautiful, stylish jewelry. I feel so inadequate. And why should I feel that way? The bible even instructs women to not wear their finest garments and expensive jewels into the place of worship. And I know that satan is using this to make me feel inadequate, get my mind off the sermon, basically to get hold of me. I would even like to visit other churches, although I expect it is the same all over, but my husband loves our church and will not consider leaving.

  20. Nikki says:

    This is SO TRUE! I realized recently that some of the things I was saving for, things I felt I SHOULD have at age 39 (a car, a house) were all things that would not allow me to have the lifestyle I ACTUALLY want! I want the freedom to pack up and move cross country (as I have done – twice – and plan to do again). I want the money to take 2-3 trips a year to Hawaii and to a spa and to visit friends, even if that means I have to take public transportation and walk so I can save the money I would otherwise spend on a car. I want the ease of not worrying about repairs and maintenance a LOT more than I want a house (and besides, I live in the SAME neighborhood I would want to buy a house in – for about half the price!).

    My lifestyle is NOT one that most people would choose, and that’s fine! I dreamed of freedom and travel when I was young, not house, husband and kids. And by making conscious choices, I am able to live the way that’s important to me!

  21. Micki says:

    What a terrific post! Thank you.

    I tell my young daughter over and over that things are not the way they seem on tv, and the items they advertise are rarely as nice or fun once you purchase them. Someetimes though, I catch myself falling for an advertisement, and I have to bring myself back to reality.

    This is a great post, it actually has the opposite effect of a commercial. After reading it, I am more satisfied with my life, more hopeful for the future. After watching certain commercials, I feel more dissatisfied…Strange, huh?

  22. Nancy says:

    This post is spot on. So many of us think we’re immune to commericals because we don’t go right out and buy the product they’re advertising. But it creates this constant feeling of being discontent—and that consuming will make you feel better. It helps create the consumer culture.

  23. Terry says:

    This is a fabulous post — and just what I needed to read today. I am terribly unhappy in my current 9to5 job that I took in the downturn — also am building my business which is doing great — but gosh, this morning I just wanted to walk out of this job. Anyway, I seriously need to think about the issues you bring up, the whole lifestyle issue — what do I really want? Every time I have a problem w/money it is due to wanting things that I really don’t need and usually that is because I am unhappy for some reason. Well, I am looking for another job, a part-time that pays more or one that isn’t so confining, just a change, and focusing on my business and saving money. Thank you Trent. I get so much out of your blog and everyone’s postings!

  24. Golfing Girl says:

    I hate the Infinity commercial where the guy rolls a snowball down the mountain that ends up destroying a BMW and shoving it out of the way so he can have a parking spot. I guess if I wanted to be a total prick, I should buy an Infinity? That’s the message I get anyway.

    It’s not just commercials, but most of TV that is glamorizing the American lifestyle. How often do you see homes that look “lived in” with kids toys everywhere and a few dishes on the counter or in the sink? Almost never–unless you’re watching something akin to “My Name is Earl.” Most shows I watch have professionally decorated rooms with brand new furniture and updated appliances. I guess no one wants to watch a show where the main characters live like “normal” people.

  25. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    That’s the whole point of commercials, to make you want what you don’t have. If you’re happy with your current life then they can’t really sell you anything extra.

    I’ve started avoiding TV originally because I found it uninteresting. These days I avoid it because, even without the commercials, it’s still showing me these “glamorized” lifestyles that I should be striving for. The only thing that does is make me unhappy or spend too much.

    My life is wonderful. I have good friends, a warm house and an amazing woman in my life. I can aspire for me, but I don’t need more and I would rather those aspirations came something other than the TV.

  26. Interested Reader says:

    I get that people don’t like tv, honestly I do, but I don’t understand why everyone acts so surprised that TV shows and commercials do what they are supposed to and what they have always done.

    TV has been always had unrealistc depictions of life this didn’t just happen recently think Leave it to Beaver, Andy Grittith Show, I Love Lucy, The Waltons, The Honeymooners – etc.

    Commericals have always used the same concepts – use our product and you’ll be better. Whether it’s saying “ring around the collar” is a career killer and wives buy this brand or astronauts drink Tang and it has viatmin C- moms buy this and your kids will be healthy (and like you!).

    It’s always been there, people are just more savvy now than they used to be.

    Look to tv for entertainment but not how you are supposed to live your life it’s all about selling something.

  27. JuliB says:

    Something that really stands out with me is that my mother says that she grew up poor in a poor neighborhood (south side of Chicago) and they never knew they were poor. She is 65.

    I knew we were poor/working class (maybe), but it really didn’t kick in until cable came out when I was in my teens. That’s really when I noticed the difference.

    I think the media (shows and advertising) has made so many people think they are poorer then they really are. This is bad for society in general, but I have no suggestions as to what would make it better.

    Toyota – I own one and will probably stick with it, but that Highlander commercial sends me close to the edge…

  28. Jenzer says:

    Years ago I started a subscription to Sunset magazine after visiting the Pacific Northwest on business. While I loved the travel articles about Oregon and Washington State, the advertising copy grated on me. My friend and I used to go through the ads and count how many times we found words like “jealous” and “envy,” and phrases crafted to evoke dissatisfaction and competitiveness. (My old couch will be jealous of my new carpeting? Seriously?)

    Eventually I quit reading Sunset — and all other home improvement / lifestyle magazines — because I became aware of how crappy I felt after reading them. Knowing that their aim was to manufacture discontent didn’t keep me immune from it.

  29. Josh says:

    Spending is a drug just like any other drugs. It’s addicting and people will do it to change their mental states.

    Everyone has different struggles and it’s our job to control those struggles…

  30. Nancy says:

    #27 JuliB– you are absolutely right with your comments. We live in a society based on comparison, largely because of TV’s ability to bring the “ideal” lifestyle into our homes 24/7. This didn’t happen decades ago to the extent is does today.

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