It might seem obvious, right?
Especially to someone like yourself, who actually takes an interest in the study of happiness.
You might think, “of course materialism does not make us happy!”.
What fascinates me, however, is that even though we all agree on this, why does society seem to still drive towards materialistic goals?
Why is most, if not all, success defined by materialistic achievements.
Is there something we’re missing, something we have not yet taken into account with regards to our knowledge of how to develop and culture true happiness?
Let’s have a look.
Note: If you could like to read this article at a later time, you can download this article as a PDF
First things first
As always, it’s important we start with definitions.
For this particular definition I’ve decided to take the 3 definitions from the first page of Google as the word ‘materialism’ is very subjective and I wanted a well rounded answer:
- A tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.
- A way of thinking that gives too much importance to material possessions rather than to spiritual or intellectual things.
- Preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual,intellectual, or cultural values.
- The belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life.
- A tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.
You can see here that the definitions include three aspects:
- The importance given to materialistic objects over other things.
- The ‘other things’ being non-materialistic items such as internal human experiences.
- Examples of what materialistic items are, such as money.
Then the next question becomes, how have we as a culture changed over the year? Are we more or less materialistic than we used to be?
I would have liked to think that with the democratisation of knowledge that the internet has provided and the neverending stories of those who have achieved overwhelming material success going in and out of rehab, that some awakening of sorts has taken place.
Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Psychology researchers from San Diego State University took data from surveys of 355,000 teenage senior high school students between 1976 and 2007.
Amongst other things, the article states some of the key findings from the study:
“Compared to Baby Boomers graduating from high school in the 1970s, recent high school students are more materialistic — 62 percent of students surveyed in 2005-07 think it’s important to have a lot of money, while just 48 percent had the same belief in 1976-78.
Sixty-nine percent of recent high school graduates thought it was important to own a home, compared to just 55 percent in 1976-78.
Materialism peaked in the 80s and 90s with Generation X and has continued to stay high.
As for work ethic, 39 percent of students surveyed in 2005-07 admitted they didn’t want to work hard, compared to only 25 percent in 1976-78”.
These are significant changes in a relatively short period of time, and the jury is out as to what the reason behind this is. My hallucination is that the new prevalence of social media (more on this later) is actually making this even worse, and if this survey is done in 5 years from the time of writing this I fear the numbers would be much more alarming.
The cause of materialism
Our desire to acquire and own objects has been theorised to be caused by a number of different reasons.
One thing we do know, however, is how popular media is not helping the situation.
Commercial advertising is created specifically to inject an urge into the viewer of a need to buy their product.
In doing do, these adverts must associate their product with some form of happiness.
This usually takes the form of satisfying some primal need, such as a feel of comfort/security, sexual satisfaction or increased perceived status.
Researchers since 1985 have known that what they’re seeing on commercial advertising is crumbling the human mind. Having studied the advertising in popular magazines between 1900 and 1908, the study concluded:
“While little evidence is found to support some critics’ contention that advertising has visually portrayed a progressively more luxurious and comfortable lifestyle, the themes employed in advertising do lend support to such an assertion. In addition, there is evidence that recent advertising has increasingly portrayed consumption as an end in itself rather than as a means to consumer well-being”.
So we know that popular adverts in magazines, television and so forth are trying to convince us that the purchasing of things that are perceived to increase our status, worth and fame is a good thing.
There are, in addition to this, other theories as to why we have material desires.
Steve Taylor, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University here in the UK, wrote a fascinating article in Psychology Today with some further thoughts on this topic:
“Many economists and politicians believe that acquisitiveness – the impulse to buy and possess things – is natural to human beings. This seems to make sense in terms of Darwin’s theory of evolution: since natural resources are limited, human beings have to compete over them, and try to claim as large a part of them as possible.
One of the problems with this theory is that there is actually nothing ‘natural’ about the desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, this desire would have been disastrous for earlier human beings. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers – small tribes who would usually move to a different site every few months. As we can see from modern hunter-gatherers, this way of life has to be non-materialistic, because people can’t afford to be weighed down with unnecessary goods. Since they moved every few months, unnecessary goods would simply be a hindrance to them, making it more difficult for them to move.
Another theory is that the restlessness and constant wanting which fuels our materialism is a kind of evolutionary mechanism which keeps us in a state of alertness. (The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has suggested this, for example) Dissatisfaction keeps living beings on the look out for ways of improving their chances of survival; if they were satisfied they wouldn’t be alert, and other creatures would take the advantage.
But there is no evidence that other animals live in a state of restless dissatisfaction. On the contrary, many animals seem to very slow and static lives, content to remain within their niche and to follow their instinctive patterns of behaviour. And if this is what drives our materialism, we would probably expect other animals to be acquisitive too. But again, there is no evidence that – apart from some food-hoarding for the winter months – other animals share our materialistic impulses. If it was necessary for living beings to be restless and constantly wanting then evolution would surely have ground to a half millions of years ago.”
As you can see, we have no final answer on the topic why we have such compelling materialistic desires as a culture.
I personally feel it is more likely the result of our current culture. The reason I lean towards this as opposed to a more evolutionary-adaptation viewpoint is because I have met people personally who do not have substantial materialistic desires.
Persons of both older and younger ages nowadays are seeing the absurdity and futility of gathering more and more things and trying to impress people.
It suggests it’s a mind-set of some sort which can be challenged and altered with effort, which is promising.
Are there any correlations between materialism and happiness?
The scientific literature seems to show that materialistic tendencies have a variety of effects on an individual, one of them being depression.
One study of 430 university students between the age of 18 and 24 found a significant positive relationship between materialism and depression.
The study also found, interestingly, that no differences were found on scores related to compulsive buying between men and women, although men did score significantly higher on scores of depression and materialism.
Another study looked into similar markers, with the addition of internet activity, indicating some very interesting relationships between time spent online and materialism and depression.
As the study states:
“Participants with CB [compulsive buying] did not significantly differ from those without CB regarding age, sex, marital status, annual household income, and shopping preferences. Individuals with CB reported more depressive symptoms, higher materialistic values endorsement, and more severe excessive Internet use compared with those without CB.”
Yes, advertising on the internet is more personalised, more relevant and more appropriate to your own life. However, please remember, advertising is still advertising.
In addition to this, we would be wise to take a bird’s eye view on what all the research says on the relationship specifically between materialism and well-being.
Kaylene Joy Fellows from Birmingham Young University conducted a meta-analysis (a study of multiple other studies) look exactly at this, in a paper called “Materialism and Psychological Well-being: A Meta-analytic Study”.
After studying 45 other research articles, ranging between the years 1984 and 2012, and with participant sample sizes ranging from 71 to 12,894, she concluded:
“In a meta-analysis of effect sizes from more than 45 samples, I found a significant, negative relationship between materialism and well-being. Although this study does not address the question as to whether or not money can buy happiness, it appears that valuing money (and material goods) is a consistent way to diminish happiness. Although the magnitude of the relationship between materialism and .psychological well-being is small, it is still a problem that is worth attention. It stands to reason that this will become an increasingly pervasive problem as the technology makes it easier for individuals to see what they could have, “if only”.”
It doesn’t just affect you. A study from the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, after looking at 1,734 couples and the impact of materialistic desires on marital well-being found:
“We found that materialism had a negative association with marital quality, even when spouses were unified in their materialistic values. Marriages in which both spouses reported low materialism were better off on several features of marital quality when compared to couples where one or both spouses reported high materialism”.
So the question is, why?
Why is materialism and happiness so strongly negatively associated?
The answer is simpler than you might think.
The literature shows that the incessant need to buy things is the result of a lack of self-esteem.
Someone who doubts himself/herself so dramatically will feel the need to do something to fill this unfillable gap. So they buy, buy and buy more.
And yes, there is definitely a temporary high that comes with purchasing items, but have you ever noticed that it is always, without exception, temporary.
So one’s desire to buy stems from dissatisfaction with oneself, then the purchase of the item temporarily increases one’s perceived status or power in their own eye, but it fades quickly and thus the real problem – the low self-esteem – kicks back in with full force, thus encouraging him/her to continue buying and buying.
This is the essence of consumerism, materialism and one of the biggest unnecessary causes of unhappiness among society today.
The reason the effect purchasing material things has a temporary effect on our happiness is due to a phenomenon called the hedonic adaptation.
Hedonic adaptation refers to our tendency as humans to adapt psychologically to the good or bad circumstances we find ourselves in.
Whether it’s a new rolex, a new lamborghini, a new mansion, a new set of letters after your name, a beautiful husband/wife, worldwide fame.
No matter that we possess or experience, that new object or thing or lifestyle will become the norm, we will get used to it and want change to the next shiny new object, for as long as we live, unless we stop the madness now.
How to stop the madness
The solution, fortunately, is equally as simple as the explanation for why people become materialistic.
If the problem is low self-esteem, the solution is increased self-esteem.
The only long-term and effective manner I know how to do this is to develop one’s organic curiosity towards one’s own identity.
I first came to understand this when learning about Ramana Maharshi and he came to psychological clarity and permanent inner peace.
Abnormally low or high self-esteem must and only must arise from a belief that who they are, the picture they have established in their mind, is real.
To question the validity of this so called ‘self’, to enquire as to whether it is real, is the most eye opening pursuit one can engage in.
Of course, all personalities are created. They are not inherent in the human experience. You must label characteristics, name them, judge them and cultivate them for them to exist. Others can perceive them differently to you, and they can change over time, further demonstrating their subjectivities.
Earlier I mentioned to you that I personally know people who are not materialistic. It’s no surprise to me that they also have the most charming self-esteem.
Why do they have that level of self-confidence? Well, let me assure you, it is most definitely not because they have things others don’t.
They are, without fail, the ones who are the least self-obsessive. I know people who almost live in their own bubble and if you met them you would think they have forgotten about themselves completely.
They don’t worry about what other people think of them because they don’t even worry about what they think about themselves.
Further to this, there are a great few practices to trick the mind into reduced materialistic tendencies:
Research has shown that gratitude can effectively inhibit the desire to buy.
This makes sense, given that if you are grateful for what you have you will nature have a reduced desire to buy more.
Another study shows that practicing gratitude even helped moderate the negative effects materialism has on your happiness.
The study states:
“…gratitude – and to a lesser extent, positive affect – functioned as moderators of the effect of materialism on life satisfaction. Individuals high in gratitude showed less of a relationship between materialism and negative affect”.
Secondly, you can choose to consciously begin to spend money on experiential purchases, such as holidays and classes, over material purchases such as a skateboard or shiny new television.
Research has consistently and undeniably shown the benefit of doing this, as experiences build memories which last forever, thus providing a wonderful source of long-term happiness – something objects could never do.
Finally, it would benefit you massively to avoid all commercial advertising when possible. You can do this by avoiding television and the internet completely, limit the use of them, or even just mute adverts and do something else whilst they are going on.
Commercial advertising is not doing anyone any good and if you are someone who feels there is benefit to advertisements because you get informed of different products, remember we now have access to the internet and anything you could possibly want will be available for you to search for online when you are ready.
The science to date has clearly shown why we have developed this need to purchase and impress other people, and modern media has done nothing but made it worse, brainwashing society to put themselves in any financial risk possible to achieve nothing of real substance.
We also know that less materialistic people are happier and that we can take active steps to ensure we are less materialistic.
In doing so, you’ll be happier in the future, save a lot of money over the years, have higher self esteem and feel more satisfied in life.