The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 22, 2001
Lead Article

ILLUSTRATION BY GAURAV SOODWhat is this man carrying on his head? Excessorexia!

A York University study found that one in every five persons in Britain has an obsession with wanting more than he already has—a complex that is called "excessorexia." The study says that due to a general increase in national wealth, images of flawless faces and perfect bodies, and the promotion of stylish homes, expensive cars and fashionable clothes as must-have accessories, an increasing number of people feel that they simply don’t come up to society’s high standards and fall prey to this illness, says Aruti Nayar.

THE average urban Indian has never had it so good or so much of the so-called goodies of life that it is difficult for him to make up his mind. Dil maange more is definitely the rule and not an exception. Conspicuous consumption is no longer derided and ascetic self-denial not a matter of veneration and the desirable ideal worth striving for. As a matter of fact, it is the unabashed pursuit of pleasure and perfection—be it chasing an aspirational lifestyle, resorting to accumulation of goods and commodities that are not necessities but give us immense pleasure and a fulfilment of sorts— that defines modern lifestyle.


Breaking out of the mindset that stressed on frugality and focussed on 'simple living and high thinking,' the urban Indian is revelling in the joy that excess can give. It is almost a liberation of sorts as a generation writes a new code of conduct in a new script. Money is no longer an ambivalent word in the melting pot of class and caste has lost its cutting edge. Market economy, that term flaunted so much and so often by Leftists who have fallen to the lure of excess themselves, is what makes so many toys available to us adults. This pursuit of perfection and excess might have its own consequent problems, as a study in the UK has revealed, but we do not seem to care.

According to the latest results of a study that is being carried out by clinical psychologists at York University, as many as one in five persons in Britain are thought to have an obsession with wanting more than they already have, a complex that some of them are calling "excessorexia." Due to a general increase in national wealth, images of flawless faces and perfect bodies, and the promotion of stylish homes, expensive cars and fashionable clothes as must- have accessories, an increasing number of people feel that they simply don’t come up to society’s high standards. But in striving for perfection in all aspects of their lives, many people risk making themselves ill. The research into the phenomenon at York shows that a preoccupation with perfectionism typically leads to deep-rooted emotional turmoil. An increasing number of people suffer from stress, lead miserable lives and don’t feel good about themselves. This despite the fact that they resort to all possible modes of action to feel good about themselves.

Though we in India cannot be slotted in the same category as those in the UK, we can stand forewarned. Sample some of these remarks:

"I don't want to be embarrassed about overspending or indulging myself. After all if it is excess that gives me pleasure, then what's wrong with it?" (An upper middle class homemaker on her frequent shopping binges that leave her more disgruntled than she was before she splurged).

"It's so liberating to be able to generate money and then blow it up. Why must I wait until the fag end of my life to enjoy the good things of life? Life is here and now, not elsewhere."( A 21-year-old executive)

"I don't think love is anywhere on my list of priorities, but a swanky car, a posh bungalow and holidays abroad definitely are. It is so easy to love anybody who gives me all those. I am sure I can manage to get all these if I am focussed enough". (A young postgraduate, to a friend)

For the average middle class urban Indian, the dictum "The more you have, the more you want" seems true in the present context. The individual is being enticed by the sheer range and variety of goods, services and aggrandisements. So many images, ideals and feel-good stimuli assault his senses and mould his perceptions that he rarely gets time to evaluate his own responses or position vis a vis this assault on his senses.

Money is no longer a dirty word. In fact, after years of shunning it and masking the need for money in a phony sort of spirituality, Indians are correcting their attitudes and according it the privilege that it deserves. Often, this privilege is even at the expense of the individual himself. Thus the individual is as good as his house, car, apparel and acquisitions. Maslow, in his model of the hierarchy of needs, assumed that when individuals satisfied their lower needs for food, shelter etc, they would automatically move on to the satisfaction of higher needs, such as the need for community service, socialisation and graduate to self-actualisation.

However, the unabashed and unceasing pursuit of pleasure has led to the individual’s growth being arrested at a certain level. Material needs, howsoever diverse and varied the market might make them out to be, consume all the time, energy and attention of the individual. This automatically leads to a failure to graduate to a higher level. When an individual does not seek self-actualisation or fulfilment at planes that utilise his potential better than those that cater to basic minimum needs, what does he contribute to society and in what way does he become a socially useful member of society? Only an individual who has explored his own potential and realised his desire for self-actualisation, can contribute something towards the social set-up that he belongs to . If he remains obssessed with meeting his own needs, he can never graduate towards focussing on others.

When the universe shrinks to ‘I, me and myself’, within this circumscribed universe, the hankering is for acquisitions and possessions that give pleasure and not joy. So preoccupied are we with ‘having’ that ‘being’ takes a backseat. When ‘being’ is relegated to the background, real happiness can not be obtained. Pleasure is transitory but joy is not and joy is obtained by connecting to something deeper than the superficial amassing of goods and commodities. Relationships, appreciation of nature and man’s place in the scheme of things, the means adopted towards the path of success, all require a deeper engagement and a stepping out of one’s self.

This stepping out becomes all the more difficult when an entire industry’s effort, that too in a systematic aggressive mode, is to hook the individual and trap him so that he can become an addictive consumer of both commodities and lifestyles. If there aren’t any security blankets left, there are no watchdogs either. The media itself is captive to sensationalising that very trivia and superficiality that is the defining feature of man’s journey on the highway to materialism. The commodities, goods and lifestyles and seemingly attainable standards of perfection are packaged so enticingly that the individual can not help being seduced.

In order to ascertain whether we are not about to become a victim of excessorexia, some questions we should be asking ourselves are:

How much is really enough for me?

Do I want a house, lifestyle, body like television idols and icons so desperately that I am willing to go to any length to attain this aspirational goal?

Am I acquiring objects or are they possessing me?

Do my relationships give meaning to my life or is it the acquisition of goods, lifestyle and success that makes life worthwhile?

Does a feeling of inadequacy, despite all achievements, gnaw at me constantly?

Do a sense of security and a deep-seated feeling of not having it all goad me to try still more ways and means of satiating that sense of loss?

Does the pursuit of success, singlemindedly and to the exclusion of all else, translate into happiness and enduring joy?

How long has it been that I have connected to family, friends, children, colleagues just for the sheer joy of relating?

Do standards of perfection always elude me?

Does a completed task not give me a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment?

Do I set unrealistic standards and unattainable goals for myself?

It would be wrong to make out the individual into a passive recipient who is just being acted upon. He is an active participant, a willing accomplice and a gratified captive. If you can have a better house, bigger car, a better body...why not? Only don’t say: "After this, then what?" There aren’t any answers to that one except perhaps "More, more and yet more." Once you are merely the sum total of all your acquisitions and possessions, the natural consequence is to keep up and run ahead. As a business magnate had put it once, "It is like running backwards on a fast-moving conveyor belt. Even in order to stay at one place, you have to keep running. If you stop, you are out."

As the thin line between luxuries and necessities blurs, the mentality of scarcity is substituted with a mode that promotes, glorifies and exalts excessive consumption. This excessive consumption is not only of consumer durables but also of heady potions such as power, authority and desire to control. The individual amasses more and more and thinks and introspects less and less and the giant wheel of excess rolls on. Witness how this excess reflects itself in expressed behaviour and manifest violence. It is as if if you do not know how to rein in your impulses in one sphere, the other areas of your personality are likely to be affected. Small wonder that excess breeds only more and various kinds of excess. As though it were a self-perpetuating mechanism that if once set in motion can not be arrested.

If a spoilt VIP brat is violent or destructive, it is because no one ever told him to observe a limit. Or rather no one did tell him that there are limits to having and behaving in a particular manner. Often the unbridled gratification of needs also creates a situation wherein expressed behaviour and impulses also become unbridled. And no body does tell you to get off this merry-go-round.

The higher you go the more scary and thrilling it is and also more dangerous, since it takes longer to regain the balance, once you are on terra firma.

In this scenario, a very disturbing consequence is the failure to impart any core values or ground rules in an age where automation and speed leaves you almost breathless. They have to be packaged equally well as have to be the stimuli that influence. There can be no absolutes, since each individual subscribes to a personal code. It is indeed a test of ingenuity and originality how the institutions (family included) measure up and counter the onslaught on their individual by forces of consumerism. As Swami Agnivesh says in Mastering Materialism: Wealth, pursued for its own sake, is the god of materialism. Consumerism is its ritual and technology is its supernatural. Worldly success is its dogma. Escalating and interminable pleasure is the highway to its secular Nirvana.

Decades ago, the French philosopher Bergson had warned that: We would be crushed, not by our failures but by our successes; and our souls would be crushed under the weight of our achievements. Perhaps sensing this vacuum, and in a desire to correct the imbalance and rectify the sense of loss and a feeling of being incomplete (since acquisition of material goods does not translate into happiness) is the pursuit of many therapies. As people queue up for pranik healing, yoga, meditation, reiki and art of living courses with the same frenzied excessiveness as they chase goods, it’s a cycle that is set in motion. The lifestyle pursued affords only a limited satisfaction and in order to remedy that an alternative healing system is sought. The more the tension generated, the more frenzied the search for an antidote.

Imagine the responsibilty of parents, employers and institutions in such a set-up. The need is to create a security network that affords us the pleasure and the joy of enjoying material prosperity without losing out on the core that nourishes our inner world and makes us more than just consumers.

Particularly daunting is the task of bringing up children in this milieu. Parents have to be extremely watchful and innovative so as to be able to equip their children with certain core values and constants that can counter the onslaught of the images that exercise such a hold over the imagination of minds that are still in their formative stage. Before they learn to intervene, they have to be convinced about their own position vis a vis the mirage of materialism. Since the parents of today have been reared themselves with a psychology of scarcity and are revelling in the unabashed pleasure of living and acquiring sans guilt or a looming conscience. Similarly, schools and institutions can serve as catalysts of change. They can reinforce the desirability of offerring resistance to the dominant trend and help focus on alternatives and creative endeavour that can nourish the inner world of recipients.

There has to be more to our life than the Romans of yore, who ate, threw up and then went back to eating again. Or the Epicureans whose philosophy equated pleasure with good and who lived to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow one might die.

After all, are we not the architects of our own destiny and creative enough to cope with the challenge that living in these times creates. It is in exploiting our potential to the hilt in a way that makes us give much more to our succeeding generations and our environment, than just want more for ourselves.

No one perhaps has died of excessorexia, but it can certainly takes the life out of the living.

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