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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Rooted in Insecurity, the Materialism & Wealth Obsession Buys Only Worse-off Well-being

Don't create, or produce, or discover -- just buy. Never save, never invest, never cut back -- just buy. Buy what you don't need with money you don't have ... Buy like you breathe, only more frequently.
- Matt Walsh

Consumerism and materialism

Called a modern religion, consumerism is the American way of life that fuels our capitalist economy. It sells consumption of material goods as the path to self and social enhancement, as well as the key to happiness.

And if not of actual improvement or well-being, at least appearing that way.

Where consumerism describes society’s endless appetite for buying, materialism is how that shows up as individual traits and behaviors.

Materialism 101

It’s typically measured in a few areas:

The first is the degree to which having certain possessions are the measuring stick by which you judge your success and worth, and that of others.

Another gauge of materialism is just how central having material things, and the accumulation of more of those things, is in your life. How big a role does it play in driving goals and motivating behavior?

Where you live, what you drive, what you wear, where you go – for materialists, the accumulation of possessions and experiences that define and communicate status can be a preoccupation.

A further key facet of materialism is buying into the psychology of consumption – the promise that money can buy happiness. Highly materialistic consumers are motivated by the idea that possessions, wealth and image will deliver satisfaction and even more, are necessary to be happy.

Social psychologist Dr. Marsha Richins, at the University of Missouri, finds that the unrealistic expectations people put on material goods to bring happiness, disappear sadness, fix relationships and change people and lives is immense.

That’s a lot of pressure. No matter what you’re buying, it’s probably not magic.

Media exposure, ad spend and materialism

Many studies have found a strong and direct connection between materialistic views and media consumption. The more media consumed - the more TV, more social media - over the longer period of time - the more materialistic the orientation.

Regular and long-term media consumption builds up consumer messaging and cues overtime. So direct is the connection Twenge and Kasser (2013) found, that increased ad spending, like a lever, turned up levels of materialism.

National levels of advertising spending were found to be predictive of the level of materialism in any given year’s high school seniors. The more money spent on advertising, the more materialistic that years’ American youth.

The discontent that lies in the human condition is not satisfied simply by material things. – Derek Walcott

Rooted in insecurity

All this advertising taps into underlying feelings of insecurity to sell all sorts of things to fix, mask or distract from anything that ails you.

Over and over, studies have linked increased materialism with insecurity – of all sorts.

From an absent parent and fear of rejection to financial fears or physical threat, psychological insecurity, regardless of source, drives a material bent.

Donnelly et al. (2016) and Kasser et al. (2004) see materialism as a way people cope or escape deep-seated fears and feelings of insecurity and lack of control over their lives.

Self-doubt predicts materialism

Chang and Arkin (2002) studied over 600 undergrads and found that level of self-doubt predicted materialism.

Individuals who routinely doubted themselves or their worthiness, tended to be more materialistic than their peers who had more self-confidence. Experts say that personal insecurity drives people to invest themselves increasingly in possessions.

The research also showed that self-doubters tended to judge themselves and their purchases more from the perspective of others. Materialist buying decisions were less about whether they themselves liked the item, and more about how others would admire whatever they bought.

Possessions as status symbol

If a Gucci bag falls in a forest without a social media post, does it make any sound?

Just as important as the possession or wealth, is making sure everyone knows you have it. It’s often what the possession says about the possessor that matters most. And for that, it must be visible, conspicuous.

Studies confirm that materialism also includes the psychological elements of wanting to achieve status and enhance one’s image through accumulating money and luxury goods.

Having and showing off material things that others covet, can provide temporary relief from self-doubt and feelings of insecurity.

This can be especially true for people who have bought into the materialistic, consumer lifestyle but who lack the financial resources to fulfill their material desires.

Compensatory consumption

For those without the resources and cash to keep up with the tech billionaires, rappers and reality stars, feelings of frustration or inadequacy can drive an obsession to pursue highly-esteemed and well-visible possessions.

Called compensatory consumption, the need to project the image of status through possessions also often includes prioritizing wants over needs and neglecting essential financial responsibilities; as well as growing high-cost debt in pursuit of luxury goods at any expense.

No social system will bring us happiness, health and prosperity unless it is inspired by something greater than materialism. – Clement Attlee

Nonmaterialists are happier. Period. Full stop.

Let’s not kid ourselves, money matters.

Dr. Edward Diener, who researches materialism and well-being, says that as income rises, materialistic people do become more satisfied with their lives overall. But only so much.

Research does show that there’s a kind of this happiness glass ceiling when it comes to income and money. Money helps us meet our basic needs and absolutely relieves pressure.

However, not too much beyond that, wealth makes no meaningful difference in overall happiness and well-being.

Despite the money and possessions, people who are not driven by material possessions and those low in materialism are plain happier than even rich materialists – no matter what they buy.

That’s because the ingredients to what makes up life satisfaction appear to be in opposition to materialistic values.

“To be content with little is difficult; to be content with much, impossible.” Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Materialism, discontent & the constant state of you-don’t-have-it-yet

Not only can’t money buy happiness, the opposite is in fact true. Being materialistic actively makes people more miserable.

Overall life happiness is just made up of daily happiness, all added up.

Materialism is associated with fewer positive daily experiences as well as a greater dissatisfaction with one's overall lot in life. The cause is not the actual possessions or money, but the focus on and importance of accumulation that’s linked to unhappiness.

According to Tim Kasser, material satisfaction proves short-term and fleeting. Like building a tolerance for a drug, the act of consumption can become adapted to over time.

A satisfied desire is quickly replaced by something new to want – creating a constant source of dissatisfaction and state of lack. Research by Richins et al. (1992) showed that highly materialistic people felt worse after buying, than less materialistic consumers.

Maybe not the feeling anticipated when the credit card was whipped out.

…the American dream has a dark side, and the pursuit of wealth and possessions might actually be undermining our well-being.” – Tim Kasser

Materialism & mental, physical health

In study after study, the pursuit of greater wealth and more possessions has been associated with worse-off psychological well-being and mental health.

This negative effect of materialism is literally, universal. The harm to well-being that comes with being materialistic affects all, regardless of gender, age, wealth, race, or level of education. Even across the world in different cultures and societies.

According to Kasser in his book The High Price of Materialism (2002), highly materialistic people suffer worse-off psychological well-being, including significantly more anxiety and depression.

All the emphasis on money, possessions and image negatively impacts physical health as well. Materialism has been associated with less physical activity, lower vitality and more reported health problems like head, back and stomachaches; and sore throats and muscles.

The materialist personality

The glorification of material things and image has partially fueled the exponential growth of a-holes. Research has linked a whole host of personality traits and behaviors that trend around those high in materialism. It paints quite a picture – and a not so pretty one.

Materialistic people tended to score high on Kasser’s narcissism scale. They are more likely to be ambitious, competitive, arrogant and aggressive. Materialistic people are more likely to be vain and feel entitled to special treatment.

They are less likely to place value on their own self-respect.

If a little is not enough for you, then nothing is. – Epicurus

Materialists are more self-centered and more envious. They are more likely to be possessive and controlling; manipulative and hostile.

Cohen and Cohen (1995) found that, among other things, people with materialistic values are more likely to be either socially isolated or be overly dependent on others. They also were more likely to believe others are out to get them, and be passive-aggressive when relating.

Maybe you have a picture of someone you know in your head. Perhaps in their designer loafers.

Doesn’t play well with others

If it’s not clear by now, materialists are worse to the people around them.

One of the defining features of materialism, according to Belk (1984) is non-generosity.

Not surprising given that studies show materialistic people have less connection, concern or empathy for others. They are less sociable and have fewer quality relationships.

When two materialists marry each other, they tend to be unhappy together.

It is the preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly. – Bertrand Russell

Behaviors associated with materialism

Materialism is associated with greater levels of debt and more regular financial problems. Materialists are more likely to be compulsive shoppers or gamblers.

The Cohens (1995) also found that people driven by materialistic values had more problems with focus and attention. They showed increased self-control issues and problems managing emotional and other impulses. They had higher levels of drug and alcohol consumption.

Research has connected materialism with decreased levels of work ethic, growing the divide between the want of the spoils, and the willingness to work for it.

These work averse materialists also cared less about societal norms, standards or rules.

Those who highly value wealth, possessions and status may nail anti-social tendencies. It’s the critical pro-social, interpersonal behavior that materialists have been shown to sorely lack.

Money is a great servant but a bad master.”
Francis Bacon

Extrinsic v. intrinsic goals

These values involve looking for a sense of self-worth from the world, from outside of oneself.

It’s this aligning of life in pursuit of wealth and image that’s been found to have significant negative psychological impact, not to mention unhappiness and less successful relationships.

On the flip side, intrinsic goals aren’t focused on what everyone else thinks. Intrinsic goals shoot for things like personal development, interpersonal and community connection or other passions or self-satisfying pursuits.

It’s these inherent purposes that have been shown to improve our mental and physical health, as well as feed happiness.

Materialism as distraction

The pursuit of stuff can get in the way of more important things. We only have so much time and attention.

According to Diener, materialism is often a distraction from, and even a contradiction to, pursuing intrinsic goals that actually feed our happiness. It takes a lot of time and energy, not to mention money, chasing materialistic and image-conscious goals.

Research has revealed this is sometimes at the sacrifice of more important things in life.

From dissatisfaction and depression to debt and divorce – being materialistic has proven to do a number on personal well-being, relationships and overall happiness in life.

But the harm goes well beyond the individual.

Someday people will learn that material things do not bring happiness and are of little use in making people creative and powerful. – Charles Steinmetz

Materialism in opposition to community, environment

Individual materialism also works against the interests of society as a whole.

It’s been found to reduce prosocial behaviors and social cooperation – just the values a thriving community depends upon. Rather at a societal level, materialism divides.

Research finds that materialistic people are more likely to approve of economic inequality. When using possessions and wealth to attain a higher status, other people having less is part of it. After all, to be a have, there must be have-nots.

It’s been linked to increased isolation, antisocial behavior and racist views.

Materialism is also associated with more-destructive and less-protective environmental attitudes and behaviors.

Materialism is toxic to happiness, and we are losing our connection to the natural world. – James Gustave Speth


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