Materialism has been defined as "a cultural system in which material interests are not made subservient to other social goals and in which material self-interest is preeminent."22 It refers to the degree of importance that a person attaches to possessions, and the extent to which consumption becomes the primary source of satisfaction, as well as the dominant mode of motivation. One reason to suspect that materialism may not be entirely conducive to psychological well-being concerns the relationship between materialistic consumption and discontent.
Whereas initial consumption can create the experience of pleasure, the phenomenon of adaptation soon ensures that the pleasurable sensations become neutralized.23 Satisfied desires are automatically replaced by new ones that demand attention, but it does not take long before the object of consumption fails to offer any sort of thrill, and that again speaks of the "sadness after intercourse" effect. The consumer encounters confusion when the act of consumption does not deliver the expected pleasure and happiness. Even young children can be affected by an agitated bewilderment that stems from this breach between heightened anticipation and actual experience as it relates to consumption.
A different situation exists among the poor, who lack the means to act upon much of their consumer desire. They often experience the frustrating awareness that their extreme financial constraints are somehow blocking access to socially defined pathways to happiness. This idea often combines with feelings of inadequacy related to their knowledge that they have fallen short with regard to the definitions of success acknowledged in consumer society. Consumption sometimes becomes an obsession for such people, and it is not uncommon to see them neglect basics and essentials in order to squander money on highly visible objects loaded with consumer prestige. Debilitating debt can be one of several negative effects of this form of compensatory consumption.
The interworkings of materialism, desire, and discontent constitute the backbone of the current system of capitalistic economics.24 Economic growth is stimulated as powerful cultural suggestions are disseminated, via the media, in order to lock in motivation toward impossible ideals and images. With further consumption as the solution to the inevitable discontent stemming from the overall process, the economic system grows and becomes more robust. The malcontents who function as the cogs usually continue to cooperate even if they perceive the ways in which they are being manipulated, or the many other costs that are involved, including environmental degradation and impaired relationships.
On the subject of interpersonal relationships, research has demonstrated that materialism is associated with self-centeredness and a loss of concern for others.25 In one study, participants were presented with a hypothetical situation in which they had been unexpectedly given $20,000. Then they were asked a series of questions with regard to how they would use that money. Those high on materialism reported that they would spend three times more on themselves than the low-materialism respondents reported. They also said that they would contribute significantly less to charitable organizations and give less to family and friends than their low materialism counterparts. Also administered was a Nongenerosity Scale, which measured lack of generosity with possessions and nonmonetary resources. Similarly to other aspects of their study, a strong correlation was found between materialism and nongenerosity.
Another feature of this study is worth mentioning here. When questioned about their values, those high on materialism were far less likely than low-materialism respondents to say that they valued "warm relationships with others." Curiously, although more self-centered in general, those high on materialism placed less value on self-respect than low- materialism respondents. Maybe materialistic pursuits are facilitated when one ignores not only other people, but key aspects of oneself as well.
For some time, social analysts have been aware that materialistic cravings have the effect of creating life-style complications and imbalances that interfere with the quality of relationships. A number of them have recommended measures to turn our attention away from distracting materialistic cravings and to reacquaint us with our fellow human beings. For example, the notion of "voluntary simplicity" has been proposed as a chosen life-style orientation aimed at enhancing the quality of life by reducing the complexities that are invited by acquisitive materialism.26
A significant proportion of people today seem to be conscious of the superfluous nature of their consumption activities, as well as the unnecessary stresses they suffer in order to pursue materialistic objectives. A variety of surveys confirm that upward of 50 percent of people would, in principle, be willing to reduce material possessions, as well as income, in exchange for reduced stress and better relationships with family and friends. The fact that they do not act upon these feelings may be related to the therapeutic role that consumption has adopted. Nearly two-thirds of Americans report that they use shopping as a stress reliever. Only television watching and telephone talking rate as more effective in terms of stress reduction. Consumption has also acquired a social dimension that is the source of positive emotion and mutual support, however meager, for many people. Thus life-style simplifications that curtail consumption may represent a perceived threat to coping ability.
Originally, voluntary simplicity was conceptualized as a means by which to increase spiritual fulfillment by challenging clutter as the chief purpose of life. As a method of deliberate simplification, it involved a partial restraint of some superficial aspects of daily life in order that greater abundance could be achieved in more meaningful areas, including that of interpersonal relationships. More recently, the concept of voluntary simplicity has been approached more generically, defined as "a lifestyle intended to maximize direct control over daily activities and to minimize consumption and dependency."27
A similar orientation was preached by E. F. Schumacher, who celebrated voluntary simplcity as "a lifestyle which accords to material things their proper and legitimate place which is secondary and not primary."28 Since this is a voluntary life-style, it does not apply to individuals who, out of necessity, live simply. Rather, the person has the means to live more luxuriously but for some reason has decided to reduce complexity.
One of the latest countertrends to materialism is the "simplicity circle," which consists of a small group of concerned people who support each other in the deliberate attempt to control consumption and to refocus life in terms of community, connection, and creativity. The Center for a New American Dream has an Internet website (www.newdream.org) that assists in the formation of simplicity circles and puts interested parties in touch with one another. Since the first simplicity circle appeared in Seattle in 1992, more than a thousand such groups have been formed in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Yet, despite these and other attempts to encourage people to curb materialism, modernity has seen an ongoing escalation of this motivational orientation. As a reflection of this, the amount that people consume continues to increase at a rapid rate, even in the face of warnings about ecological destruction, resource depletion, waste management quandaries, and so forth. The amount we want has far outgrown the amount we need, and the size of the gap between want and need continues to grow. The persuasive associations that have been established among consumption, progress, and happiness will accelerate even further the release of consumption from the psychological constraints of need and necessity.
Although the trend toward consumption as an end in itself has many species-level implications, we must also comprehend this trend in terms of its mental health consequences. Some have argued that not all types of consumption are the same with regard to their impact on psychological well-being. For example, distinction has been made between instrumental consumption and terminal consumption.29 The more benign of these is thought to be instrumental materialism, since this type serves a higher purpose, such as self-discovery, personal growth, attainment of higher goals, or furthering of human life. In the more dangerous terminal materialism, the ultimate goal of consumption is possession itself. Unfortunately, from a research standpoint, it has been very difficult to agree on criteria that can separate good and bad forms of materialism. Thus most studies in this area have approached materialism as a more general construct, without a simplistic imposition of value judgments.
Marsha Richins summarizes research showing that materialism is increasing at a rather sharp rate. For example, one study of high school seniors assessed the importance of having "at least two cars." In 1976, 40 percent said that this was very important; by 1986, this percentage had risen to 63 percent.30 This study found similar increases when students were asked about the importance of having the latest fashion in clothes, a top-of-the line stereo, a summer house, and so forth. A different study asked adults whether or not having "a lot of money" was one of the main things they wanted out of life. In 1975,38 percent wanted a lot of money; by 1988 this had risen to 62 percent. This pattern explains in part why psychologists and psychiatrists are encountering an increasing number of patients who are best diagnosed as suffering from money fetishes.
Some recent studies paint a fairly clear picture of the relationship between materialism and happiness. Russell Belk looked specifically at the relationship while measuring both variables in 338 subjects from five different pools (business students, secretaries in an insurance office, fraternity members, machine shop workers, and students at a religious institute). A significant negative correlation was found between materialism and happiness, leading Belk to conclude that "more materialistic people tend to be less happy in life."31 But one cannot assume automatically that materialism per se is causing people to become unhappy. Another possibility is that already unhappy people turn to materialism in an attempt to achieve happiness. After all, materialism is the most prominent cultural suggestion, so it follows that some unhappy people would attribute their unhappiness to a deficiency of material success.
Other revealing research by Marsha Richins and Scott Dawson highlights the relationship between materialism and various aspects of life sat-isfaction.32 They found that, as the degree of materialism increased, the amount of satisfaction with "life as a whole" decreased. They also found that higher levels of materialism result in reduced satisfaction with friendships and with leisure activities. Materialism was also associated with in creased amounts of envy, a greater dissatisfaction with one's overall lot in life, and impaired self-esteem.
Taken together, the available research in this area indicates that a materialistic orientation has primarily negative effects on mental health. If this cultural theme is to be on the agenda of future mental health workers, it would be useful to study variations with regard to this trait. Of special interest should be those members who appear to be partially resistant to the cultural cognitions that underlie materialistic yearning and consumption-driven life-styles. It is still possible to locate individuals and families who organize their lives in noneconomic ways. They are worthy of our attention and study since they may hold the key for future social change. At the moment, however, we should not underestimate the hold that materialism has on members of our consumption-driven culture. Especially worrying is the rash of new pathologies that can be traced to consciousness patterns and general ontologies that are organized around consumption.
Was this article helpful?