January 24, 2011

Materialism Examined

Happiness means wanting what you have not having what you want, is a paraphrase of the former Rabbi from Houston, Hyman Schnactel's inspirational message.  

Turns out, there's research backing up this idea, more or less.  There are even blogs devoted to this theme.  Now you know you can bank on an idea if someone is blogging about it (wink).   
Materialism and mass consumerism are concepts we hear a lot about in the news. We hear ranting against the trend of buying more and more stuff, especially costly stuff  -- electronic gadgets, designer clothes, and trendy, luxury vehicles (one in particular comes to mind, rhymes with bummer) to name a few. Spend too much time around materialistic people, or label droppers, and you might find yourself developing subtle feelings of discontent, irritability and a case of what I call the wants. What my parents called the gimmes.  

A couple years ago I listened to an interview with Dr. Tim Kasser talk about his research on the psychology of materialism, a body of literature I didn't know existed until I heard him speak.  His findings indicated that the higher people rate materialistic goals (also known as "extrinsic" goals) as important, the less happy they were and the lower their quality of life. Materialistic goals include making more money, owning more stuff, engaging in high status pursuits, etc. 

Kasser said that the more people buy into messages of "consumer society," the less satisfied they were with their lives, the less self-actualized they report being. Materialistic goals are also correlated with more symptoms of depression and anxiety. His findings are the same between females/males, the old/young, the rich/poor and across cultures.

Materialistic desires were associated with lower empathy, being more manipulative, more Machiavellian, and the preference for competitive rather than cooperative strategies. Their relationships are more conflictual and shorter lived.

Additional research interests of Kasser's were cited such as looking at the relationship between materialism and "ecological well being." Not surprisingly, materialistic people leave higher ecological "footprints" and are less likely to engage in eco-friendly behaviors (recycling, energy conservation).  

Kasser concludes that people who live in more simplistic ways are happier. 

Kasser then went on to talk about a concept known as time affluence, something we Americans don't have much of compared to other western nations. We work nine weeks more per year than Europeans, fourteen weeks more than Scandinavians. Over the decades, our work week has been expanding and we become less and less time affluent. We have less down time, less time with our families, hobbies, exercise, vacation. 

Time affluence, then, is also associated with greater happiness. Again, it's not how much we can buy, it's how much we engage in pleasurable pursuits.

All of this to say, when you are feeling down about out-of-style clothes, dated electronics, that used car you just bought, or home decor that will never be showcased in House Beautiful Magazine, remember that living a simpler life can leave you with a much bigger abundance in intrinsic wealth. 

Is it working yet?   

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