The National:

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Every year economists hold their breath, asking will this be the Christmas that fails and triggers recession?

The problem is that our economy is far too dependent on consumerism for growth. Consumerism assumes that increasing consumption of manufactured goods is always better for the economy and that it's okay for people to go into debt to maintain consumption levels. However, as we head into Christmas 2023, there are few things we all know now that mainstream economic thinking doesn't.

What we know now

First of all, consumption is killing the planet and there is a growing understanding that unnecessarily consuming the planet's resources is not sustainable.

Secondly, we are still experiencing a cost of living crisis. Inflation may be slowing but it's still outpacing wage inflation, thus making people worse off.

Finally, uncertainty and job insecurity following lockdown may have led to people reducing their borrowing and therefore spending, however personal debt still sits at unsustainable levels. Those issues combined make me feel that the hoped for pre-Christmas shopping boom won't be big enough to bail out the economy.

The National:

Delaying gratification is a key philosophical difference between consumption in a wellbeing economy versus a neoliberal economy.

False objects of desire

Consumer capitalism is based on flooding people's minds with objects of desire and encouraging them to consume now and pay later. The “I want, therefore I am” economy removes discipline from people's lives. The inability to delay gratification is in itself a mental health issue and the pressure to compete and buy love from children (which is never needed) can be hugely detrimental to young parents in particular, often working two jobs as the first doesn't pay enough to pay the rent.

Consumerism and mental wellbeing

Consumer capitalism emerged in America and where America goes, the West follows. America however, is facing an unprecedented crisis in mental health and wellbeing. Official US figures from 2022 show that 40% of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. It's not just a post-Covid malaise, 2019 figures found 50% of female high school students experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness”.

Earlier this year the English NHS reported a record 466,250 open referrals of children and young people to mental health services and 3732 urgent referrals in a single month. Recently Age Scotland claimed 130,000 Scottish pensioners will suffer feelings of loneliness and isolation this Christmas with 100,000 over-65s will eat Christmas dinner alone. Loneliness increases dementia risk by up to 50%.

How are those stats related to consumerism?

Over the last century, capitalism has redefined the morals of society. It has re-engineered human nature, transforming us from a collection of social and co-operative human tribes to individualistic desiring machines. We live in a society dominated by the self, with people thinking freedom is just a tool to meet their desires and not to oppose oppression. The Oxford Handbook of Social Psychiatry notes that "research consistently finds that capitalism harms workers" mental health and exacerbates inequities.

The nature of our economy is one of falsehood. Consumption doesn't really make us happy, satisfy our needs or give us respect from our peers, especially when we borrow to fund it.

The National: What are the Christmas opening times for shopping centres near you in the North East?

Maintaining constant growth requires that we must never be satisfied with our purchases. Consumers must never feel they have everything they need, even if they have considerably more than they need. Fashions change, technology is updated and every day we throw away perfectly good "former objects of desire".

Raisin Research found the average UK household wastes £4575 a year buying things they don't need. Add to that things that could be done without (interest on credit cards and loans for those things) and arguably as much as 25% the economy could be based on unneeded spending.

A UK survey by Grant Thornton revealed that nearly 62% of impulse buys are items that consumers "wanted, not needed". Before the cost of living crisis it was a lot higher. Earlier this year the KPMG Consumer Pulse survey found that 55% of consumers have reduced non-essential spending so far in 2023. It's a start but it doesn't bode well for pre-Christmas sales.

READ MORE: The five best books about the economy written in 2023

Can we improve Christmas?

How about we reject the over-commercialisation of Christmas, and recognise that materialism was neither the original pagan nor Christian intent of the yuletide. Consume less and yes that even means food and drink, it's the thing that most damages the planet.

Resist the pressure to spend, focus on being family and a friend. Inexpensive and thoughtful gifts that last and a hug are priceless. Don't spend if you can't afford to and certainly don't borrow. Christmas isn't cancelled because you can't afford a new iPhone for your kids. The pressure to meet social expectations and to even boast about consumerist behaviour creates stress, anxiety and negatively impacts mental wellbeing.

So give love and attention to those that matter to you and invest in your own and others' wellbeing. That's a great gift as it often doesn't cost anything and is valuable to everyone. Plant a tree, visit people (especially old folks), go for a walk, avoid hangovers, avoid that feeling of disappointment that comes three minutes after a present is opened. Maybe celebrating the wellbeing of others and the planet will turn out to be the greatest gift you can actually give yourself.

That's my last column till the new year – have a good one, folks.

Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp is the CEO of Business for Scotland, the chief economist at the wellbeing economics think tank Scotianomics, the founder of the Believe in Scotland campaign and the author of Scotland the Brief.