The last few weeks have seen me embark on a clutter clearing frenzy. As I work to eliminate the clutter from my home, filling our rubbish bins and donation boxes to their brim, I can’t help but consider the meaning our society attaches to material objects and how this impacts happiness. So, following another weekend of sorting through piles of "stuff", I began to explore the published literature on materialism and life satisfaction.
As a parent, I was particularly interested to know how prioritizing the accumulation of wealth and material possessions affects children. One study by Suzanna Opree, Moniek Buijzen and Patti Valkenburg that appeared in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored the causal relationship between materialism and life satisfaction in Dutch children aged 8 to 11 years. Materialism was described as a preoccupation with possessions and the belief that products provide happiness and success. The authors found that experiencing low life satisfaction led to higher materialism in children who frequently watched television. This was attributed to television advertising, which often equates owning material possessions with happiness. In particular, the authors noted that advertising may teach unhappy children that material items can help them cope with feelings of low life satisfaction.
The role of advertising in materialism also featured in a paper by Jean Twenge and Tim Kasser that appeared in the journal Pediatrics. Twenge and Kasser used an American sample of over 355,000 12th grade students (aged 17 and 18 years) across three generations to explore generational impacts on materialism. The authors reported that being exposed to high levels of advertising (as determined by national advertising expenditure) during adolescence was associated with prioritizing materialistic aims in 12th grade.
Children may be particularly susceptible to television advertising from 8 years of age, with Opree and colleagues noting that this is the age at which children become aware of the symbolism of products and see them as contributing to their identity, happiness and social status.
A high level of materialism during childhood may even decrease life satisfaction in adulthood (Opree et al, 2013). Indeed, studies of adults have associated increased materialism with decreased life satisfaction, happiness, vitality, social cooperation and environmentally sustainable behaviors, as well as increased depression, anxiety, racism and antisocial behavior (Twenge and Kasser, 2013).
So what can we do if we want to teach our children to live a less materialistic life? Suggestions offered by Opree, Buijzen and Valkenburg include limiting exposure to advertisements, minimising the importance of possessions, educating children about the techniques employed by advertisers, and teaching children about other sources of happiness, such as friendships and play.
Like all parents, I want my children to live happy, satisfied lives. I suspect I will always encourage my children to strive for financial security, and have previously written about the educational potential of television. However, I hope to steer my children away from adopting materialistic values by following Opree and colleagues' suggestions for living a less materialistic life. After all, having less possessions to buy, clean and declutter means more time for mom. Sounds good to me!
Opree SJ, Buijzen M, & Valkenburg PM. Lower life satisfaction related to materialism in children frequently exposed to advertising. Pediatrics. 2012; 130(3):e486-e491.
Twenge JM & Kasser T. Generational changes in materialism and work centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role modeling. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2013; 39(7):883-897.