Simplicity is increasingly a luxury. The success of Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying’ demonstrates the stress consumerist culture can create; Black Friday and January sales offer cheap dopamine spikes but result in onerous piles of semi-disposable plastic clutter. Globally, 63% of us wish our lives were simpler – and more than three in five wish we could slow down the pace of our lives. Today, more than half of us (52%) feel overwhelmed by the multitude of choices we have about how to live our lives – a rise of 4% since 2013. Indeed, in what Barry Schwartz calls ‘The Paradox of Choice’, an abundance of options is not always positive; too much choice can stress us out. We do not have the time to look at, or the mental capacity to assess, the relevant benefits of the 2,069 ‘little black dresses’ currently available on ASOS. Not having done so, we cannot ever make a fully informed choice. We live in a world where a better dress, job, house, even partner, might be just one more swipe away.
The need for simplicity does not exist in a vacuum. Our analysis connects it to a desire for solitude, and a feeling that other people’s problems are a burden. Social connection is not, perhaps, a salve for the overwhelmed in modern society – it may be part of the problem. It is possible that our urban, connected world is contributing to this search for simplicity and solitude. Many studies have linked social media use and depression or speculated that the edited, online lives of others can cause discontentment with the lived reality of our own. The three countries most likely to buy products or experiences that will ‘look good in photos online’ (India, Saudi Arabia and South Korea) are also disproportionately likely to feel that their lives have become meaningless with half or more feeling this way.
Should we be concerned by these figures? Is it acceptable for 30-50% to feel overwhelmed or emotionally fatigued? Does this suggest that we need a global campaign to increase awareness of mental health? Today, around 55% of the world live in urban areas, an increase of around 5% since 2010, and that number is projected to continue to rise. Single-person households are also on the rise. In Europe, a third of people live alone, a rise of 3.7 percentage points over the last decade. Our living circumstances are changing – and the political, social and environmental situations we face are changing too. Transnational optimism is fading, wealth inequality is growing, and the pressure to take personal action to counter the climate emergency is perhaps the highest it has ever been. It’s natural to conclude that people may have a greater need to switch off, now more than ever.
Stress and melancholy is not a new trend, however. Our 1999 Socioconsult study showed that 49% of people in Great Britain wanted to slow the pace of life, and today that stands at 52%, pretty much unchanged. Two decades of technological expansion, globalisation and innovation has only seen a rise by 3% in Britain.
So, the world may be more complex than it has ever been and we can often feel overwhelmed but, a sense of perspective is important. Being human means one always faces choices, and we must strive to not ‘overthink’ or see trends that don’t really exist. Where technology is changing quickly, our emotions are changing slowly – if at all. Moreover, we are more equipped to recognise and combat these changes than ever before. Understanding the complex interactions between humans, society, and to an increasing degree technology, is becoming possible on a more nuanced scale than ever before. Indeed, technology may be the bridge that allows us to move from a world in which individuals adapt to society towards one where an individual’s needs are met.
As with media stories about ‘trust’ being in crisis (see our report ‘Trust: the Truth?’), feeling overwhelmed and worthless are not new. Rather in the 2020s, we may be more compelled to search for more simplicity and meaning with rising living standards globally, more technology and more choice. Brands which can provide easy choices which can make life simpler, will continue to thrive in the 2020s.