Materialism's One-Two Punch

Materialism is a philosophy that takes you down and keeps you from getting up.

Posted Mar 21, 2017

You have views about what makes a life happy and successful. You have, in short, a philosophy. Your philosophy affects how you live and how you evaluate people's lives, including your own. It's not surprising, then, that some philosophies are better for you than others.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Source: Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Materialism is a philosophy that's associated with unhappiness. It holds that a life is better - happier, more successful - to the extent it's full of more and nicer things. 

Philosophical materialism is an attitude toward life; it's not an attitude toward stuff. You can reject philosophical materialism and adopt any attitude toward stuff you want. You can be extravagant and revel in nice, high-end things. (Enjoying nice things isn't associated with unhappiness.) Or you can be ascetic and value the simplicity and freedom of owning just the bare necessities. Or you can be anywhere in between. As long as you disavow the idea that the quality of your life is measured by the quality of your stuff, you're not a philosophical materialist.1 

Philosophical materialism packs a one-two punch. It takes you down. And it keeps you from getting back up.

Philosophical materialism takes you down

The weight of evidence suggests that philosophical materialism doesn't make you happy and might, in fact, make you unhappy. For example, Kirk Brown and his colleagues (2015) asked a wide range of people to keep track of their emotional reactions to their purchases for 3 weeks. After buying stuff, materialists reported more unpleasant emotions than non-materialists. This effect held even when controlling for income and background levels of emotion.

I should note that the evidence on whether material things make materialists unhappy is mixed.2 I'll return to this point soon.

Philosophical materialism keeps you from getting back up

Philosophical materialism catches you up in a cycle that keeps you from getting happier. 

       Philosophical Materialism ⇔ Cut off effective sources of happiness

First, the right arrow: By orienting you toward material things, philosophical materialism distracts you from valuing things that are far more likely to bring you pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction. Philosophical materialism keeps you from fully engaging with people and projects that could enrich your life (Burroughs & Rindfleisch 2002, Kashdan & Breen 2007, Pieters 2013, Tsang et al. 2014).

Now, the left arrow: When values that promote happiness (like valuing strong relationships) seem out of reach, people settle for superficial values that don't promote happiness (like materialism). Sheldon & Kasser (2008), for example, found that when people were asked to ponder their own deaths, imagine experiencing economic hardship, or think about someone who's critical of them, this boosted their commitment to external rewards (financial success, attractive appearance, social popularity). In another study, Chang & Arkin (2002) showed that after heightening people's self-doubt or anomie (their sense that the social order is breaking down), they became stronger philosophical materialists. It changed how they evaluated people's lives, but it didn't change how much they enjoyed material things.

Rik Pieters (2013) conducted a fascinating longitudinal study that confirms this sort of vicious cycle. He identified a materialism-loneliness feedback loop. 

Breaking the cycle

For the unhappy materialist in your life, the solution to getting happier might seem obvious: Reject materialism. This sounds like it should work. But it might be less effective than it sounds. 

Eleven psychologists collaborated on the first controlled experiment to test whether reducing materialism boosts happiness (Kasser, et al. 2014). Families participated in a financial education program designed to reduce materialism in teens. And the program worked. Among teens high in materialism, those who went through the program ended up less materialistic than those who didn't - even months after the program was over. But the program had modest effects on happiness. While it promoted teens' self-esteem, its effect on anxiety was "essentially nil" and its effect on life satisfaction was not statistically significant (17).

We shouldn't put too much weight on a single study. But this result isn't an outlier in the materialism literature: the evidence is somewhat mixed on whether materialism makes you unhappy (see note 2); but the evidence is stronger that materialism keeps you from getting happier. So here's a speculation: Maybe materialism packs just one punch. It's a fairly minor cause of unhappiness - so it doesn't really take you down. Its main effect is to cap your level of happiness so it can't rise back up. This would explain why dialing back materialism seems to have modest effects on happiness. Removing the cap on happiness won't, by itself, raise your level of happiness. 

Even if this is right, even if philosophical materialism works mainly to keep you from getting happier, that's still a grievous harm. And it shows that the materialist needs a better philosophy - a better set of views about what makes for a successful, happy life. 

Notes

1. This discussion is based on an instrument psychologists commonly use to measure materialism (Richins and Dawson 1992). It distinguishes three types of materialism: success (e.g., "I admire people who own expensive homes, cars, and clothes"), happiness (e.g., "I wouldn't be any happier if I owned nicer things"), and centrality (e.g., "I enjoy spending money on things that aren't practical"). For ease of exposition, I've placed success and happiness materialism under a single umbrella ("philosophical materialism") even though they have somewhat different causal profiles. For the findings I report here on happiness and materialism, see Chang & Arkin 2002, Pieters 2013, Dittmar, et al. 2014.

Another instrument understands materialism in terms of Scrooge-like personality traits: possessiveness, envy, and non-generosity (Belk 1984). Yet a third instrument was used in a 20-year longitudinal study (Nickerson et al. 2003). It measured materialism in terms of how someone rates "the importance to you personally of being very well off financially" on a 4-point scale.

2. Sheldon & Kasser (1998), Niemiec et al (2009), and Brown et al. (2016) found that materialists aren't happier when they pursue and get stuff, even in the short run. Hudders & Pandelaere (2012) found the opposite. Nickerson et al. (2003) found that the negative effects of materialism are diminished as income increases. But it's useful to keep in mind that Nickerson and colleagues measured materialism in terms of the importance of "being well off financially." This is much weaker than philosophical materialism (Richins & Dawson) or Scrooge materialism (Belk).

Bibliography

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