Christmas, Wanting, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Or, why we buy stuff for the holidays.
The Shoe Event Horizon
There’s an adage that people buy more when they’re stressed, feeling insecure, hungry, powerless, tired, and put-upon. Many advertisers use this to manufacture need, casting your current life as insufficient, reminding you of your helplessness (really, stirring up a childish desire to be in control of everything, a la the “High Chair Tyrant” of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover), and of how great life will be after you buy their product.
Douglas Adams famously satirized this on the planet Brontitall, where the birdlike inhabitants bought shoes when they were sad. But the purchases only brought short-term relief, and soon that pair was flung aside to make way for the purchase of a new pair. The cycle was so strongly self-reinforcing that the entire civilization eventually collapsed under the weight of the Shoe Event Horizon, and all that was left of them was a thick archaeological layer made up entirely of discarded footwear.
Hierarchy of Needs
That’s a primal example at the fundamental ‘Physiological’ level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And there are examples almost all the way up the hierarchy, though I’ve never seen advertising that engages the “self-actualization” level. Food, beer, lingerie ads for Physiological. Locks and air bags and political statements at the Safety level.
Getting enough to eat is a life-or-death issue for many Americans, and a shockingly large fraction of the world as a whole; keeping safe from the environment and from each other, likewise. But in more privileged parts of the country, these aspects fade away, and we’re able to aim to achieve higher needs. (Assuming, of course, the free availability of wifi!)
The thing is, we’re at our worst when trying to fulfill a need if we are currently experiencing that need. It puts us at the mercy of those who would manipulate our needs to part us from our things of value: comfort, money, friends. We’re better served to work toward achieving neeeds precisely at the time we don’t need them, when we are free to consider context and timing and weigh our options.
Most of us, eventually, learn not to go shopping for food when hungry. The food ads become too hard to ignore, the ones that line every shelf of every grocery store. But beyond that, it gets trickier.
Shopping for a cup of belonging
‘Belonging’ seems to get left out a bit, though perhaps warm fires and sweaters and family restaurants, and the old Latter Day Saints ‘ads’, fit in here. Perhaps Facebook ads try (and, IMHO, fail) to trigger this too, with fake social ads. And honestly I think we could all use a bit more belonging in our lives.
But belonging gets easily weaponized when it comes to in/out group messaging. “If you buy this, you’re one of us” is the root message behind most branding these days: Apple users are seen as ‘team Apple’ (whether or not that’s true); likewise Reebok vs. Nike, Coke vs. Pepsi, or Ford vs. Chevy (sorry, Dodge boys); or any of the other artificial dynamics imposed on consumers in a desperate attempt to sell more stuff.
‘Esteem’ is an interesting one, because if your esteem needs are fulfilled, you tend to stop buying ‘luxury’ items. When you feel good about yourself — when you hold yourself in high esteem — you don’t need the external validation promised by purchase of that new badge of status.
And so capitalism requires that “advertisers keep us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need”. We chase empty respect from others which we are told we can buy by dressing right, by driving the right cars, instead of through our actions. We are told we’ve achieved when we spend. “Treat yourself” and “You deserve a break today” slot in here, as do “dress for confidence”, and “the choice of champions”. (Tellingly, I can’t come up with an example for an ad that asks us to respect *others*, one of the highlights of the Esteem level. Can you?)
But that last level, ‘self-actualization’ — it’s tricky. Because it promotes the sort of thinking that unpacks ‘need’, the kind of introspection that involves critical thinking.
It imagines a state where people are in control of their own needs and wants, rather than letting them be manipulated by others. I think that some entities that (honestly or not) seek to aid people in ‘becoming’ do in fact appeal to this level; self-help books, for example, like the one linked to above. But as consumers we are strongly tuned to disbelieve anyone who is trying to help us change ourselves, because 90% of that is bullshit. Or perhaps more; and what helps you may not help me.
And so the legitimate messages get lost in the shuffle.
The Cure for Seasonal Wanting
This time of year, we want. You might say it’s seasonal. It’s cold out, and grey, and our bodies crave calories, and our eyes crave color.
I think the acquisition-aspect of winter holidays is partly cultural, but largely seasonal. In the summer, you can go outside in the sun and grass and be comfortable, see your friends, and have fun just walking along. In the winter, it’s cold and you’re hungry for fatty foods and dark and you’re trapped in your house; and even if, like me, you’re lucky enough to have a home full of very cuddly people and cats, you’re left wanting on many levels.
And so we give each other presents, because it helps on many levels: we get to buy, which makes us feel powerful, and we get to make things for each other, which makes us feel generative. We wrap them and decorate the tree, letting us be artistic and creative. We see our neighbors string up lights, and we feel a sense of belonging. We eat sweets and rich foods, which our bodies desire to help insulate against the cold, and which taste yummy, and we are nearly required to visit each other. We gather family around in the security of the home, and dream of lamp fuel neverending, or of a white Christmas, with our family stuck inside under the defense of blanketing, quiet, beautiful snow.
(This is also why we have Arisia and things like that, for which yay.)
We dream of gifts yet to be received, which lets us fantasize. We receive presents, which help us respect others, and ties us to our friends and family.
And, of course, we *get* stuff, guilt-free, which can be anything from warmth (socks) to security (money) to play and creativity (toys and books and puppies).
For some, Christmas itself is also a time of spiritual achievement, of connection to the divine, which is a path to Self-Actualization for some. It’s where many people find their morality, their attempts at a lack of prejudice; it’s a font of creativity in pageants and song and silly sweaters; and it tasks adherents to strengthen their connections to strangers and seek peace with their enemies. This process isn’t perfect, but that’s the aspiration.
And so Happy Holidays to you and yours, with all that entails; may you have your needs met, and meet the needs of others, and enjoy the returns of the day.
 I’m not saying this is all bad. Buying stuff keeps the money circulating, keeps people employed, keeps them busy; while there are perhaps other mechanisms to making the world work, changing models is inherently catastrophic, and unlikely to occur, and the downsides of capitalism can perhaps be ameliorated with collective action by governments, community groups, unions, and other entities whose priorities are not based on profit. (Or perhaps we’re just shoving those downsides onto underrepresented populations elsewhere in the world; that’s a discussion for another day.)
 Holidays are many and varied the world over. Although Christmas is The Thing for 85% of English-speaking countries, even if the religious percentages don’t quite work out that way, the spirit is echoed in Solstice celebrations throughout history; in modern times Hannukah has been made to fit the same mold, to be a present-giving holiday in the heart of cold. And Kwanzaa, which I cannot claim any adherence to, is also full of color and happiness and caring for one another, and an appeal to our better selves in unity, creativity, and community.
 I find this process is actually stronger and more explicit during the High Holy Days, where Jews are explicitly commanded to give charity and seek the forgiveness of others, but there are similar elements in the charity of Christmas. Some charities survive the entire year on the contributions given this month.