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Tom Moon, M.F.T. Materialism is Misery

Materialism is Misery

The holiday spending orgy — with its images of frenzied “consumers” fighting and trampling each other to get their hands on all that great stuff they had to have — is finally behind us. But since it’s also a recent memory, this might be a good time to take a hard look at what our national addiction to stuff actually does to us. English writer and social activist George Monbiot recently reviewed the extensive research on the psychological effects of materialism, defined as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project.” He reports in the Guardian that the science is clear: materialism leads to a lack of empathy, is destructive to relationships and measurably reduces wellbeing.

He describes a series of studies published last year that showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose, etc.) diminishes. Conversely, if they become less materialistic, it rises. In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they also became happier.

Another study followed Icelanders who were attempting to cope with their country’s economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground, while others became less interested in money and turned their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group had higher levels.

One paper described a controlled experiment in which subjects were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive). The subjects experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations – and also anxiety and depression. In addition, they also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to participate in social activities. The researchers point out that, since we’re repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

Finally, a study which followed 2,500 people for six years found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions, and this attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.

Monbiot concludes that materialism is “a system that eats us from the inside out,” and that the belief that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing is, in fact, “a formula for mass unhappiness.”

Humans are vulnerable to destructive value systems like materialism in part because of the way we’re hard-wired. When our brain’s built-in reward system identifies a something it wants, it releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that propels us toward the reward. This system is fairly indiscriminate: it doesn’t distinguish between rewards that will make us happier from those that won’t. And whenever we experience a dopamine rush we’re prone to two cognitive errors: we tend to overestimate both the pleasure we’ll derive from gratifying our desire and the discomfort we’ll feel if we don’t. When we buy into what the reward system tells us, then we are susceptible to the “hedonistic fallacy,”– the belief that happiness consists of stringing together as many pleasurable moments as possible. Fortunately, there is more to our brains than the reward system. We have a neocortex which is capable of acquiring the insight that a life dominated by the imperatives of the reward system is unhappiness, and of understanding that pleasure and happiness aren’t the same thing. We can acquire the insight that it isn’t gratifying our immediate desires that creates happiness, but warm connections with others, a commitment to their well-being; and shared experiences of awe, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust.


Author: Tom Moon