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Consumer Behavior

The Madness of Materialism

Why are we so driven to accumulate possessions and wealth?

Source: Pamsmith/flickr

In January 1848, James Marshall was building a sawmill by a river near present day Sacramento when he found a piece of glowing metal on the floor, which turned out to be gold. Once rumours of the discovery had spread within a few weeks, tens of thousands of people were flocking to the area, struck by "gold fever."

Ships were abandoned all over the California coast, businesses closed down, and whole towns became deserted. In a little over a year, San Francisco grew from a shanty town of 79 buildings to a city of tens of thousands. Over the next few years, at least 300,000 gold-seekers came to California.

The effect on the Native Americans of California was catastrophic. They were driven off their traditional hunting and gathering grounds, and their rivers were polluted by gravel, silt, and toxic chemicals from the new mines. Some Indian groups used force to try to protect their lands, but were massacred by the miners. Those who weren't killed by the miners slowly starved to death, or died from diseases passed on by the immigrants. Others were kept as slaves, while attractive young women were carried off to be sold. As a result, the Californian Native American population fell from around 150,000 in 1845 to 30,000 in 1870.

This savage materialism was typical of European immigrants' attitude to the "New World" of America. They saw it as a treasure-house of resources to ransack, and saw the native population as an inconvenient obstacle to be eradicated.

Some tribes were so confused by the colonists' insatiable desire for gold that they believed that the metal must be a kind of deity with supernatural powers. Why else would they go to such lengths to get hold of it? When an Indian chief in Cuba learned that Spanish sailors were about to attack his island, he started to pray to a chest full of gold, appealing to the "gold spirit" which he believed they worshipped. But the gold spirit didn't show him any mercy — the sailors invaded the island, captured the chief, and burned him alive.

Modern Materialism

In some ways, the gold diggers' rampant materialism was understandable, since they were living at a time of great poverty, and for many of them gold digging seemed to offer an escape from starvation. But most of us in the western, industrialized world don't have that excuse. Our appetite for wealth and material goods isn't driven by hardship, but by our own inner discontent. We're convinced that we can buy our way to happiness, that wealth is the path to permanent fulfillment and well-being. We still measure success in terms of the quality and price of the material goods we can buy, or in the size of our salaries.

Our mad materialism would be more forgivable if there was evidence that material goods and wealth do lead to happiness. But all the evidence fails to show this. Study after study by psychologists has shown that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The only exception is in cases of real poverty, when extra income does relieve suffering and brings security. But once our basic material needs are satisfied, our level of income makes little difference to our level of happiness.

Research has shown, for example, that extremely rich people such as billionaires are not significantly happier than people with an average income, and suffer from higher levels of depression. Researchers in positive psychology have concluded that true well-being does not come from wealth but from other factors such as good relationships, meaningful and challenging jobs or hobbies, and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves (such as a religion, a political or social cause, or a sense of mission).

Explanations for Materialism

Many economists and politicians believe that acquisitiveness — the impulse to buy and possess things — is natural to human beings. This seems to make sense in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution: Since natural resources are limited, human beings have to compete over them, and try to claim as large a part of them as possible.

One of the problems with this theory is that there is actually nothing "natural" about the desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, this desire would have been disastrous for earlier human beings. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers — small tribes who would usually move to a different site every few months. As we can see from modern hunter-gatherers, this way of life has to be non-materialistic, because people can't afford to be weighed down with unnecessary goods. Since they moved every few months, unnecessary goods would simply be a hindrance to them, making it more difficult for them to move.

Another theory is that the restlessness and constant wanting which fuels our materialism is a kind of evolutionary mechanism which keeps us in a state of alertness. (The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has suggested this, for example.) Dissatisfaction keeps living beings on the lookout for ways of improving their chances of survival; if they were satisfied they wouldn't be alert, and other creatures would take the advantage.

But there is no evidence that other animals live in a state of restless dissatisfaction. On the contrary, many animals seem to very slow and static lives, content to remain within their niche and to follow their instinctive patterns of behaviour. And if this is what drives our materialism, we would probably expect other animals to be acquisitive too. But again, there is no evidence — apart from some food-hoarding for the winter months — that other animals share our materialistic impulses. If it was necessary for living beings to be restless and constantly wanting then evolution would surely have ground to a halt millions of years ago.

In my view, acquisitiveness is best understood in psychological terms. Our mad materialism is partly a reaction to inner discontent. As human beings, it's normal for us to experience an underlying psychological discord, caused by the incessant chattering of our minds, which creates a disturbance inside us and often triggers negative thoughts. Another source of psychological discord is the strong sense of separateness many of us feel, the sense of being isolated individuals living in a world which is "out there," on the other side of our heads.

We look to external things to try to alleviate our inner discontent. Materialism certainly can give us a kind of happiness — the temporary thrill of buying something new, and the ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterward. And we use this kind of happiness to try to override, or compensate for, the fundamental unhappiness inside us.

In addition, our desire for wealth is a reaction to the sense of lack and vulnerability generated by our sense of separation. This generates a desire to makes ourselves more whole, more significant and powerful. We try to bolster our fragile egos and make ourselves feel more complete by accumulating wealth and possessions.

It doesn't work, of course — or at least, it only works for a very short time. The happiness of buying or owning a new item rarely lasts longer than a couple of days. The sense of ego-inflation generated by wealth or expensive possessions can be more enduring, but it's very fragile too. It depends on comparing yourself to other people who aren't as well off as you, and evaporates if you compare yourself to someone who is wealthier than you. And no matter how much we try to complete or bolster our ego, our inner discontent and incompleteness always re-emerges, generating new desires. No matter how much we get, it's never enough. As Buddhism teaches, desires are inexhaustible. The satisfaction of one desire just creates new desires, like a cell multiplying.

The only real way of alleviating this psychological discord is not by trying to escape it, but by trying to heal it. — which will have to be subject of another blog post.

Dr. Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, UK. This article is adapted from his best-selling book Back to Sanity.

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