Sold?

Understanding consumer behavior—before you buy.

True Happiness Rarely Lies at the Bottom of a Shopping Bag

Contrary to advertising messages, materialism is associated with unhappiness.

We all want to be happy.  Some of us derive happiness from different places than others, with varying degrees of success.  A lot of commercial advertising would have us believe we need newer and better material possessions to be happy.  Psychological research however bears little support for that idea.  On the contrary, research has shown people who make their happiness and satisfaction contingent upon consumption tend to be less happy and more dissatisfied with life.  In this post I’m going to elaborate on the relationship between materialism and unhappiness and I’m also going to discuss why psychologists think materialistic individuals are less happy.  After reading you’ll hopefully be enabled to focus on what (according to research) actually does bring happiness, instead of that which promises happiness but often doesn’t deliver.

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Materialism is defined as the importance and centrality of possessions in providing happiness.  A lot of research has been conducted on the relationship between wellbeing and materialism, with a consistent theme emerging in the results:  More materialistic people are not as happy as less materialistic people.  Specifically, materialistic individuals tend to be less satisfied with life and experience more anxiety and depression.  Materialism has also been associated with narcissism and even physical symptoms like headaches, backaches, sore muscles, and sore throats.  That being the case, advertising that tells you that you need a product to be happy seem a little less credible now, doesn’t it?

A reasonable question in response to learning materialism is associated with reduced wellbeing is Why?  What is it about materialism that it’s been so consistently associated with unhappiness?  A lot of researchers think materialism is associated with unhappiness because it distracts people from personal growth and collective values like family and friendship.  Indeed, materialistic individuals tend to have poorer interpersonal relationships.  Now materialism certainly isn’t diametrically opposed to collective values.  It is possible to be materialistic and collectively oriented.  However, more materialistic people do tend to be more individualistic and focus less on personal growth and community, strivings that are associated lower anxiety and depression.

Another theory about the relationship between materialism and wellbeing has to do with insecurity.  According to this theory, materialistic individuals are insecure and use their possessions to impress others and make themselves feel better.  Materialistic individuals tend to have poorer wellbeing because this strategy ultimately backfires, due to the inevitable instance when a possession isn’t stylish or expensive enough and it (at least in the mind of the materialist) fails to impress.  The materialist knows this is a possibility and therefore worries and feels insecure about the success of impression management efforts.  In support of this theory, materialistic individuals are more self-conscious in public and experience more social anxiety.  Further, materialistic individuals do tend to be more insecure, and in laboratory settings when people have been made to feel more insecure they’ve responded with higher levels of materialism.  Finally, inducing higher self-esteem has been shown to reduce materialism, showing when we feel secure we place less value on possessions as a means of happiness.

People are social animals.  We need fulfilling relationships with other people to thrive.  Some people however substitute relationships with possessions for relationships with people or think they’ll gain respect after being seen in a stylish new wardrobe or a beautiful new car.  When people do this they’re often dooming themselves to unhappiness though because their possessions can never love them back and because there’s always a more stylish wardrobe or a more sought after car.  Ultimately, the idea that we’ll be happy when we live in our dream house or drive our dream car just doesn’t pan out because in the end happiness is a state of mind, not a goal to be accomplished.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever buy anything luxurious or even treat yourself to something just because you think it would be fun to own.  What I am saying is the happiness we imagine ourselves experiencing at the thought of owning a product is probably transient at best, and when we feel like we need a product to be happy we’re likely just fooling ourselves.

Ian Zimmerman, Ph.D., is an experimental psychologist who studies consumer behavior in order to help consumers make better, smarter buying decisions.

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