Materialism and Happiness
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 2019 (edited December 30, 2021)
Money can't buy happiness. Possessions advertise empty promises of happiness. Our well-being demands much more than a new car, a nice house and the latest iPhone.
We are preoccupied with possessions. Want is king in a consumer driven market. Businesses succeed when we consume. Advertisements for stuff promise happiness through purchase, hinting that pleasure and fulfillment is obtained through possessions.
We spend precious money trying to satisfy artificial wants, believing a product will satisfy lack. We spend to satisfy a lack that was artificially implanted through intelligent marketing campaign. We become slaves to things that create their own sense of lack. These things never satisfy feelings of incompleteness. We chase the illusion of fulfillment constantly stimulated to pursue something shinier with the next commercial, the hunt never ends, and fulfillment always eludes.
Jack Kornfield, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, wrote that "the impoverished myths and songs of our culture are sold everywhere: the myth of materialism and possessiveness that says worldly goods lead to happiness" (1993, page 323).
A popular luxury car commercial pans through a year of family outings, marking the memorable events of family togetherness, and then suggesting the warmth of these moments begins with “a December to remember.” A Christmas gift of an expensive car is rudely suggested to be the foundation of a memorable togetherness throughout the year. While a car may be present during family outings, it certainly isn’t responsible for the success (as long as it doesn’t distract).
"Materialism is an identity crisis."
Bryant H. McGill
A False Sense of Lack
Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor of the New Republic, wrote, "as ever more material things become available and fail to make us happy, material abundance may even have the perverse effect of instilling unhappiness—because it will never be possible to have everything that economics can create. Each year the world offers more alluring items to buy and acquire, yet many find being deprived of material items “more cruel than possessing them was sweet, and people were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them” (2004, location 1682).
We are bombarded by these messages of lack; but it isn't real lack—it's marketed lack. We can't be happy when we feel deprived of fundamental needs, even if those fundamental needs are only symbols of success forced upon us but lack real substance.
"We become slaves to things that create their own sense of lack. These things never satisfy feelings of incompleteness."
Solving incompleteness isn’t satisfied by acquiring things—the more we accumulate the more we want. We already possess enough for survival. Without food, shelter and security, we would suffer. Some possessions add security, others comfort; and some simply add contribute to stress and aggravations—a weighty and growing debt.
Thomas Merton warns we can't allow "the murderous din of our materialism...to silence the independent voices" (1999). Materialism cries loudly, drawing attention away from things that matter.
Richard Strozzi-Heckler Ph.D., an internationally known speaker, coach, and consultant on leadership and mastery, proclaims the "the disembodied life" has been institutionalized. He explains, "capitalistic perspective socially organizes the body toward acceleration and speed in a world that is rapidly collapsing time and space. Both are deeply dehumanizing" (2014).
"Materialism isn't the panacea that so many people think it is."
Possessions Vary in Amount of Satisfaction
Possessions vary in utility for producing happiness; money in the bank adds security; homes, cars, and clothing lift status and comfort. Possessions are neither good nor bad. A possession may add to our lives in one way but subtract in other ways.
Most happiness researchers agree that more money doesn’t always equate to more happiness. However, not enough money for the basics hurts well-being; but as money increases, the happiness gained levels off. The gains must be weighed against the costs. Too much time earning money subtracts time spent creating connections or enjoying meaningful pursuits. Many possessions have reoccurring costs and maintenance frustrations, drawing limited financial or emotional resources.
Johnathan Haidt, an American social psychologist, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, cites research that supports this. He explains that, "people who report the greatest interest in attaining money, fame, or beauty are consistently found to be less happy, and even less healthy, than those who pursue less materialistic goals" (2006, location 1882).
Overly focused pursuit of material goods and money is a symptom and coping strategy for dealing with incompleteness.
"The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip."
Materialism Interferes with Other Healthy Pursuits
In Affluenza, an excellent book on this topic, the authors Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss explain, "when people and nations make progress in their materialistic ambitions, they may experience some temporary improvement of mood, but it is likely to be short-lived and superficial." They continue, "materialistic values of wealth, status and image work against close interpersonal relationships and connection to others, two hallmarks of psychological health and high quality of life" (Hamilton & Denniss, 2005, p. 14).
We make faulty conclusions and still of adjust we engage in more of what is not working. In the case of materialism, the momentary flare of satisfaction from a new purchase or a growing bank account falsely supports our notion that material gain is working—we just need more. "The more materialistic we become the more we try to cope with our insecurities through consuming, and the less contented we are" (Hamilton & Denniss, 2005, p. 14).
Instead of improving our health, building relationships, and finding inner peace, we keep chasing possessions and feeling incomplete.
"For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows."
1 Timothy 6:10
Financial Security is Not Evil
Money itself isn't the evil. It's the love of money, chasing money while sacrificing other meaningful pursuits. We live in a money based economy. If we lack money for rent, food or transportation, we suffer.
Paul Dolan, a professor and department head at London School of Economics and Political Science, explains, "money appears to matter a lot when you are poor, but the impact on life satisfaction of each additional dollar shrinks—though never to zero, as it appears to do for daily mood."
Dolan, however, cautions that, "we need to be careful here, though, because income does not only directly affect life satisfaction; it also indirectly affects happiness through its impact upon other inputs that affect life satisfaction." He expands on this writing "richer people are generally more likely to have more friends, get married, be in better health, and so on, all of which improve life satisfaction" (2015, location 780).
It appears that money can serve wellness but not when possessions themselves are the goals. When our money enhances our ability to pursue more important elements of healthy living then money adds to life satisfaction--marginally. Dolan found when adding in these additional factors that, "the effect of income on life satisfaction is much greater than found previously in the literature because we are picking up its indirect effects as well as the direct effects that come from having a bigger bank balance" (location 786).
New possessions provide a spark of enjoyment, but the newness eventually wears off and the possession becomes common, declining in pleasure and increasing in cost (debt, space, maintenance). The more time we chase new possessions, the less time we have to develop other enriching activities of living—endeavors that create purpose and build memories.
Healthy relationships, minds, bodies and futures require time. We must allocate the precious commodity of time wisely. By chasing elusive satisfaction through possessions, we sacrifice balance, leaving us exhausted and unfulfilled. We will never have enough. There will always be more. We can become a slave, or manage this unrelenting drive for possessions, and replace these wasted efforts with better engagements, giving a fruitful life to our futures.
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Dolan, P. (2015). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Plume; Illustrated edition.
Easterbrook, G. (2004).The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Random House Trade Paperbacks
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1st edition
Hamilton, C., & Denniss, R. (2005). Affluenza: When Too Much Is Never Enough. Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.
Kornfield, J. (1993). A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life. Bantam; 1st edition.
Merton, T. (1999) Thoughts in Solitude. Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2014). The Art of Somatic Coaching: Embodying Skillful Action, Wisdom, and Compassion. North Atlantic Books; Illustrated edition.