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Consumer Culture And Well-Being

Which values and goals are most beneficial to well-being?

One of the psychologists whose work I most admire is Tim Kasser. For the last two decades, he and his colleagues have been studying people’s values and goals and how they relate to the good life.

They have described two types of goals and values. First, extrinsic goals and values are those that arise when people “buy into” the messages of consumer culture and organize their lives around the pursuit of money, possessions, image and status. These goals are said to be extrinsic because they are focused on the attainment of external rewards and praise, and are typically means to some other end. Second, intrinsic goals and values involve striving for personal growth, intimacy, and contribution to the community. These goals are said to be intrinsic because they are inherently more satisfying to pursue and are more likely to satisfy deeper psychological needs.

Research shows that having intrinsic goals and values is valuable to personal well-being.

Numerous studies have found that the extent to which people prioritize intrinsic over extrinsic goals is associated with higher levels of self-actualization, vitality, life satisfaction, and pleasant affect, and with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and negative affect. Furthermore, the benefits of intrinsic goals extend to the social world. Compared to those focused on extrinsic values, people who organize their lives around intrinsic values have been shown to treat others in more humane ways and pursue more ecologically-sustainable lifestyles.

Living in accordance with intrinsic values is therefore good not only for those people themselves but also for the rest of us.

Kasser discusses the ways in which psychologists can apply this knowledge. There are applications to psychotherapy. Psychotherapists often see the emotional fallout from consumer culture. However, they may overlook the ways in which materialism may be at the root of the problem. Rather than simply confronting the symptoms, new psychotherapies could therefore be developed that help people to refocus their lives around intrinsic goals and values.

Kasser also discusses applications to combat the consumer culture that encourages extrinsic goals in the first place. For example, media literacy campaigns designed to help children understand the strategies of advertisements in order to educate them about the ways that marketers manipulate them.

As we emerge from the Christmas holiday season and the bombardment of advertisements over the last few months, the need for sustained attention to the above issues seems all too clear.

To find out more, see:

Kasser, T. (in press). The science of values in the culture of consumption. In S. Joseph (Ed.), Positive Psychology in Practice: Promoting Human Flourishing in Work, Health, Education, and Everyday Life, Second Edition. Wiley.

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