Pope Francis came out with his widely discussed “The Joy of the Gospel,” which generated controversy in many quarters. In it, he condemned “consumerism,” “the tyranny of capitalism,” and the “idolatry of money.” He pulled no punches.

In a world in which religion is often pitted against science, this is one notable time that the Pope’s position echoes the findings of social science research. A team of American and Israeli researchers examined the effect of materialistic values and found—as many earlier studies had—that the subjective sense of emotional well-being (more popularly known as happiness) is lower among the most materialistic. An additional, surprising finding was that people with materialistic values suffered greater distress when faced with trauma: anything from car accidents, life-threatening illness, or terror attacks. Furthermore, highly materialistic people recovered from these traumatic events with more difficulty than those who were less materialistic.

Having materialistic values amplifies the hard times, and impedes recovering from them.

The authors speculate that more materialistic people have lower self-esteem, and that plays a role in their relatively greater distress and poorer coping skills. “Retail therapy,” it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be. Although buying something new may reduce anxiety right away, the effect is fleeting, and backfires in the long run.

How are we to view these findings, in a week that saw people physically fighting over towels at Wal-Mart? Stores were open and busy on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday crowds were frenzied, and cyber Monday made national news. What are we doing to ourselves with slogans like, “Shop till you drop”? Or, even more to the point, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping!”

After 9/11, when President Bush asked the American people to help by going shopping, he was understandably concerned about keeping the economy going following that devastating terrorist attack. But he was also widely criticized…and the critics had a point. Shopping does not help you cope with trauma.

We need to find different ways to maintain a sense of security and self-esteem. Perhaps this is a good season to reflect upon it: If Santa brings toys to good girls and boys, how can a child who doesn’t receive the longed-for toy fail to conclude that he or she is not good? Or worse, that mom and dad don’t love them enough? The way we frame holiday gift-giving may lay the groundwork for the child’s future materialistic values.

Abundance is a blessing; giving gifts a delight. Let’s be mindful and do it right.

For more on this subject see: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/when-materialism-hurtsliterally/

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