After the giving and receiving. Materialism and happiness and tough lives

by Dec 27, 2013Altruism, Poverty0 comments

This year in some circles we have seem a backlash against materialism. Typical is a new book by Robert Wolman called Stuffocation [1], arguing that stuff does not make us happy, but rather it is experiences and relationships which do. Much research bears this out and such analyses can make important points, but maybe leave out what might be propelling people to consume.

What research makes very clear is that the less people feel good about themselves, the more they tend to try to bolster a fragile sense of self-worth with status-enhancing symbols. It even happens on a very small scale. Researchers found that people who felt unconfident in the activity that they were involved in, whether tennis, business or law for example, tended to compensate by buying the latest equipment and accessories, seemingly in an attempt to bolster their self-esteem [2]. When people feel bad, fear social exclusion or are nursing emotional wounds they are more likely to compensate by purchasing high status consumer goods [3]. This is a very simple example of ordinary human defences against vulnerability.

In America individual per capita spending has risen hugely in recent decades, partly fuelled by easy credit and advertising, yet study after study shows that overall levels of personal happiness and satisfaction have not risen, while mental health problems have. There is a vital lesson here, one drawn out in James Robert’s book, Shiny Objects [4]. Urges and desires for material things become addictive in their own right, indeed in a similar way to that which occurs in some forms of addiction. In fact achieving an aim or desire generally increases the sense of wellbeing of those pursuing intrinsic values (eg to do with relationships, community, higher ideals )  but not those motivated by extrinsic motivations (ie wanting more for themselves and now [5]. Extrinsically motivated people can become increasingly driven to seek the reward that ironically will not really make them feel better.

Typically adolescents whose parents have a less nurturing or sensitive parenting style tend to be more insecure about their intrinsic worth. These same adolescents tend to place a higher value on consumerism, high status and ambitions, as opposed to the teenagers of more nurturing parents who on average place greater value on relationships, community life and self-acceptance [6]. Similarly in families with a lack of emotional resources, of love, caring support and stability, we see more individualistic beliefs and also more of what researchers called ‘compulsive consumption’ [7].

Those with more extrinsic values also tend to experience less psychological well-being, are more prone to depression, anxiety and even substance abuse, and are more likely to report ailments from stomach problems to headaches.  Patricia and Jacob Cohen  [8] looked at 700 young people in New York and clustered them according to their values. Those clustered as materialistic were more admiring of ‘having valuable possessions’, ‘being seen as attractive’ or ‘wearing expensive clothes’. Another group of young people valued characteristics such as ‘being a good person’ or ‘getting on with others’. Both groups were assessed for their risk of psychiatric diagnoses such as ADHD, depression or anxiety. Those with more materialist beliefs had far higher levels of mental health problems across over twenty diagnostic categories.

Young adults who pursue intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations have better psychological health, and this seems to be mediated by possessing more autonomy and better relatedness [9]. Such research has been replicated in countries such as Singapore, Turkey, Germany, Romania, India, China and Korea. Extrinsic and materialistic values come with increased psychological problems, and less contentment and the less content people are the more they seem driven to consume.

A contented person, then, wins each way as do those around them, as they are more likely to have good health, good friends and be more prosocial. For example people induced into a good mood became more helpful, which chimes with other research that shows that when we feel better we tend to also volunteer and help more [10]. Even young children in good moods are more generous [11]. Those with higher levels of  ‘psychological well-being’ [12] are more likely to be outward looking and generous and to give to charity.

Presumably it is not a coincidence that alongside rising inequality and poverty we see worse mental health, more materialism, and more self rather than other-centred attitudes. The luckier amongst us might have had a brief respite over Christmas and felt a warm glow that comes with giving and receiving with people who are cared for. Not everyone has had this of course, and even those who have now have to return to a grimmer reality.  While we might be exhorted to be less materialistic and selfish from a moral perspective, or even as in the Stuffocation argument, because it is better for us as individuals, there are also deeper political and social issues to think about to try and create a world in which we might feel safe, fulfilled  and where we want to spend our time.


[1]           J. Wallman, Stuffocation. Crux Publishing Ltd, 2013.

[2]           O. L. Braun and R. A. Wicklund, ‘Psychological antecedents of conspicuous consumption’, Journal of Economic Psychology, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 161–187, Jun. 1989.

[3]           N. Sivanathan and N. C. Pettit, ‘Protecting the self through consumption: Status goods as affirmational commodities’, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 564–570, May 2010.

[4]           J. A. Roberts, Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy. New York: Harper Collins, 2011.

[5]           K. M. Sheldon, A. Gunz, C. P. Nichols, and Y. Ferguson, ‘Extrinsic value orientation and affective forecasting: Overestimating the rewards, underestimating the costs’, Journal of personality, vol. 78, no. 1, pp. 149–178, 2010.

[6]           T. Kasser, R. M. Ryan, M. Zax, and A. J. Sameroff, ‘The relations of maternal and social environments to late adolescents’ materialistic and prosocial values.’, Developmental Psychology, vol. 31, no. 6, pp. 907–914, 1995.

[7]           A. Rindfleisch, J. E. Burroughs, and F. Denton, ‘Family structure, materialism, and compulsive consumption’, Journal of consumer research, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 312–325, 1997.

[8]           P. Cohen and J. Cohen, Life values and adolescent mental health. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996.

[9]           C. P. Niemiec, R. M. Ryan, and E. L. Deci, ‘The path taken: Consequences of attaining intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations in post-college life’, Journal of Research in Personality, vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 291–306, 2009.

[10]         M. B. Harris and L. C. Huang, ‘Helping and the attribution process’, The Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 90, no. 2, pp. 291–297, 1973.

[11]         A. M. Isen, N. Horn, and D. L. Rosenhan, ‘Effects of success and failure on children’s generosity.’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 239, 1973.

[12]         J. Konow and J. Earley, ‘The hedonistic paradox: is homo economicus happier?’, Journal of Public Economics, vol. 92, no. 1–2, pp. 1–33, 2008.


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