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Is Encouraging Gratitude an Antidote for Materialism?

Keeping a gratitude journal may increase generosity and reduce materialism.

With the smell of smoke from the 2018 California wildfires lingering in the air of my 11-year-old daughter's home in Marin County this Thanksgiving, like so many of us, she realizes more than usual how fortunate we are to have a home and to be surrounded by loved ones and the family pet during this season of gratitude. Like everyone, her heart aches for all the families and animals from Paradise who have perished or are currently homeless. The wildfires have made it especially clear to my daughter how fortunate she is to be one of the lucky “haves” in a world with a disproportionate number of “have-nots.”

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Although her mother and I don’t agree on everything when it comes to raising kids, we are 100% in agreement when it comes to “materialism” and greed being the most insidious of the “seven deadly sins.” A few Christmas’ ago, we agreed as a family that we had enough "stuff" cluttering up the house and that we’d only exchange small “token” gifts under the tree and do stocking stuffers. The “big” Xmas gifts to one another would be a financial donation made in honor of a family member to a specific charity that was close to the recipient's heart. For example, I give to the ASPCA or no-kill animal shelters who are trying to find homes for stray dogs in honor of my daughter.

Isn’t it ironic that immediately following a day that is typically dedicated to giving thanks for non-material possessions that there's a tsunami of consumerism and we have the double whammy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday? The annual NRF 2018 survey estimates that 164 million consumers in the United States will shop over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend.

But there is good news on the materialism front! According to Phil Rist of the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics, “While the long weekend always draws shoppers of all ages to take advantage of the irresistible deals and promotions that retailers are offering, we’re seeing a change in how the younger consumers see the weekend. Compared to older generations, younger consumers under the age of 35 are more likely to be attracted by the social aspects of shopping over the weekend or by the fact that it is a family tradition.”

That being said, if you’re a parent who is concerned about your kids' excessive materialism, a first-of-its-kind study of more than 900 adolescents between the ages of 11 -17 found that interventions designed to foster gratitude (e.g., keeping a gratitude journal) can decrease materialistic tendencies. The researchers also found that encouraging gratitude among adolescents boosted their generosity towards others.

This paper, “The Impact of Gratitude on Adolescent Materialism and Generosity,” was recently published in the Journal of Positive Psychology.

"Our findings show that it is possible to reduce materialism among young consumers, as well as one of its most common negative consequences (nongenerosity) using a simple strategy—fostering gratitude for the things and people in their lives," co-author Lan Nguyen Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of the study, said in a statement.

Saying to Oneself: “Expect Nothing” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” Can Help to Create a Baseline for Assessing Gratitude

After reading about this research on the inverse relationship between gratitude and materialism yesterday, I decided to casually check in with my daughter to see how frequently she’d slipped messages of gratitude into a small hand-blown glass “Gratitude Ball” I’d given her last year for Christmas as a stocking stuffer. When I looked at the ball (which was collecting dust on her dresser) I noticed there were only about a dozen rolled-up scrolls giving thanks. And, the “gratitude” pad still had at least a hundred blank sheets. This perplexed me, because I know she feels grateful on a daily basis.

Wikipedia/Creative Commons
Maslow's hierarchy of needs
Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

While I was putting her to bed, I brought up the findings of this study and asked in a non-accusatory and genuinely curious way what types of things she gave thanks for on the rolled-up scrolls in the "Gratitude Jar." She unwittingly described the basic ‘deficiency needs’ (things you don’t usually appreciate until they’re gone) on Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid. It makes sense that once an 11-year-old has given thanks for being loved, having a home, friends, food, etc. that she wouldn’t spontaneously create a laundry list of other things to scribble down in a gratitude journal.

A lot of people probably run out of things to be grateful for on a daily basis once they’ve jotted down all of the base needs that Maslow identifies on his pyramid.

Therefore, while writing this post, I’ve decided to share two quirky phrases that I glommed onto as a young adult that helped me learn to be thankful for random acts of kindness and anything else that made me feel blessed in a small way. Maybe the sentiment of these phrases will boost levels of gratitude for you, too?

Both of these phrases have a seemingly negative or cynical tone on the surface, which I think may be why they force my mind to perform some psychological acrobatics and keeps my “gratitude” radar on its toes as I go through the potentially ho-hum aspects of day-to-day life.

As an adolescent, I had to come to grips with the fact that I was part of a marginalized group and learn to accept that I'd most likely be subject to forms of discrimination and treated like a second-class citizen at various stages of my life. To avoid feeling bitter, I drew inspiration from the Howard Jones’ song, “No One Is to Blame.” I also memorized the poem, “Expect Nothing,” by Alice Walker. Again, on the surface, the sentiment of this poem may seem pessimistic or like a “glass-half-empty” explanatory style... But, in my mind, the poem is all about pragmatic optimism and feeling exuberantly grateful for the smallest things in life.

Reciting the simple phrase, "Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise," never fails to increase the odds of something minuscule triggering a massive wave of gratitude.

"Expect Nothing" by Alice Walker

Expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

become a stranger

To need of pity

Or, if compassion be freely

Given out

Take only enough

Stop short of urge to plead

Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger

Than your own small heart

Or greater than a star;

Tame wild disappointment

With caress unmoved and cold

Make of it a parka

For your soul.

Discover the reason why

So tiny human midget

Exists at all

So scared unwise

But expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

    The second phrase I find helpful for remembering to be grateful for everything “I’ve got,” that might resonate with you, comes from the title of the album and acapella song by Sinéad O’Connor, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” One thing I love about this song is the subtle message about not striving to be “too pure.” Most of us aren’t pure ascetics (nor should we be); we all have "impure" desires and guilty pleasures, which can be lots of fun once in a while.

    Again, the phrase “I do not want what I haven’t got” is basically synonymous with saying, “I have everything I need.” However, because Sinéad’s phrasing uses double negatives while making an affirmative statement, it requires more in-depth self-reflection. After reciting this phrase, you can ask yourself, “Do I want something I haven’t got? If so, is it a materialistic desire? Or, do I have everything I need?" I generally try to use this phrase as a starting point to assess specific things in life that I "haven’t got" which are higher up on Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” pyramid.

    The latest study by Chaplin et al. is significant because it has identified, for the first time, a correlation between increased gratitude, less materialism, and more generosity during adolescence. One could speculate that these findings probably apply to people of all ages.

    If you, or someone you know, is about to embark on a so-called “gratitude intervention” by starting a gratitude journal: Remember to jot down all the "big stuff" you're grateful for but also include any seemingly trivial, random, and unexpected daily encounters or awe-inspired feelings of connectedness to nature that create a warm glow and fill you with gratitude.


    Lan Nguyen Chaplin, Deborah Roedder John, Aric Rindfleisch, Jeffrey J. Froh. "The Impact of Gratitude on Adolescent Materialism and Generosity." The Journal of Positive Psychology (First published online: August 1, 2018) DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1497688

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