Monday, January 14, 2008

Battling the roots of materialism by focusing on happiness

According to a recent study, materialism in pre-teens and teenagers may actually be linked to low self-esteem. The study, which measured materialism by looking at what kinds of pictures young people included when asked to make collages of "what makes me happy," found that when kids read compliments about themselves from their peers before making the collages, the level of materialism they displayed dropped dramatically.

So the study appears to suggest that even though many young people think having consumer goods is what makes them happy, if they start to feel better about themselves their focus will shift to non-materialistic priorities like friends and family. In other words, if a teen you know is begging for pricey items, you may be better off spending more quality time with them-- boosting their self-esteem, and thus increasing their relative appreciation of your company compared to the material goods-- rather than spending that extra time earning the money to buy them what they want.

I wouldn't be surprised if this applies more generally to most of us. I know a lot of people have patterns of turning to shopping when they're feeling stressed or unhappy or lonely; I don't really have cravings to buy clothes or books or electronics, but for me it's sometimes a weakness for fancy overpriced food or drinks that I'd otherwise avoid (but I think it's a money-rooted issue for me rather than a food dynamic-- I'm not thinking "It's okay to indulge in this yummy food because eating it will make me feel better," I'm thinking "It's okay to spend a little money on myself because I feel lousy and I deserve a nice treat to make me feel better.") But after we spend, we don't usually actually feel any better, at least in any permanent way.

The things that actually make us happy, according to happiness research, aren't material items. Having more money doesn't usually make us significantly happier (unless our basic needs aren't being met and it's a matter of getting out of poverty)-- even though the studies find that almost all of us think we'd be much happier if we earned more money.

The things that actually increase our happiness most are things like close relationships with friends and family, good health, a sense of control over our own lives, the "flow" state that comes when we're accomplishing challenging and fulfilling things, and getting enough exercise and sleep. Sure, money and material objects can help us achieve some of those things to some extent. But focusing on money can also interfere with many of those things-- especially if we forget it's supposed to be the means to an end (happiness!) and start thinking about it like an end itself.

In other words, when we find ourselves feeling materialistic, we'd be well-served to wonder if we're like the teens in the study, and if what we really need is to find better ways to feel happy and good about ourselves. But also on the other side of the coin, when we find ourselves spending our precious time on earning more money, maybe we should be asking whether we're making the best investment in our happiness and that of our loved ones. Do we need all that money to cover our real honest needs and feel reasonably secure about the future? Or are we being bad predictors of what will really make us happy?

As for me? I've been feeling more and more like my life isn't quite how it ought to be. I like my job. But I work more hours than I wish I did, I sock money in the bank, and I tell myself it's great because it'll give me more freedom to pursue my dreams in the future. But right now, today, I'm not as happy as I could be. I'm not investing enough time in my friendships, or in the kind of meaningful hobbies that get me in the "flow" state-- I get home tired and stressed and I veg (watch TV, waste time online, etc.) I think I need to realign my time but I haven't figured out yet what my next steps are...

How about you? Do you get caught in patterns of spending and/or working that don't really fundamentally make you happier? How have you succeeded (or failed) at getting that under control?


Dawn said...

Interesting post...
My 23 year old son just called me this evening to talk about this topic. He had hung out with his 23 year old cousin last night and they had a good time. But my son said all his cousin could talk about was his new car he had just taken a loan out for (24k) and the $1000 dollar television he just got. And the point of the conversation was... he was really excited that he wasn't jealous of his cousin. He was like, "Mom...I honestly wasn't jealous of A.J." It was so awesome! He was happy for A.J. but he didn't want to be in debt like that at this point in his life (right out of college). In fact the icing on the cake was, he also told me he had just thrown down another $ 1000 on his student loan debt. The kid is really getting it. He is not deriving his self esteem from material possessions and he is making responsible financial decisions. Man he is way ahead of the curve compared to his father and me at his age...
You know I think that study is right about young people actually wanting time more than...the STUFF their parent work the long hours to buy. I've been working with kids for over 20 years and they are always starved for attention and time from their parents...
Hubby and I chose long ago that we want to work to live...not live to work. We are into the middle path on most everything in our life. And we conquered the immediate gratification demon long ago.
Gosh you sound like you are in a funky state of mind...
All it takes to get out of it is that first step... just take that first step towards feeling better. Smile...Say a little prayer of gratitude...Smile some more... Volunteer or help somebody out... One step at a time...and you will be feeling better in no time!!
Good luck and God Bless in 2008!

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. I find myself feeling spendy when I'm in the beginning stages of a project and things are still chaotic and sorting themselves out - I'm a grad student, so by project I mean a dissertation chapter. It seems to be a response to anxiety/trying to establish control. Since I need to build up my work wardrobe anyway, I try to deal with the urges by buying professional clothing - I figure that if I'm spending money, it may as well be for something useful and I try to keep costs low by shopping sales and Ebay.

amy.leblanc said...

(advanced apologies if you've written about this before; i just started reading your blog)

the subject of how insecurity - whether emotional, social, work-related, physical, or whatever- affects personal choices and belief systems (and especially what we have currently in the US - "insecure affluence") is the main subject of a recent book about environmentalism and how the general public/communities treat their natural resources based on how secure they feel: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

basically stating you can't get people to care about the environment if they are insecure in their other materialist values (home,food,job,family,safety). seems to be the same conclusion here. the more insecure they are, the more materialist they get. See "A Theory of Human Motivation" by Abraham Maslow (1943).

MoneyChangesThings said...

Also on the list of what helps to support happiness is community and spiritual life. So if you are part of a spiritual community, it definitely helps you center and connect. a lot of shopping trips are fueled by loneliness and just wanting to be with people. Americans are lonely and don't even realize it. That's why people identify so strongly with TV characters, I have read.

Cazi Brasga said...

I'm 26 and live in Southern California, so you can imagine how much materialism goes on around here. I spend a lot of time thinking, so sometimes I actually wonder if I'm missing something or if I just don't get "it". It seems like everyone else drives around in their big cars with the big rims or has the big house with the big TV and while I could do the same, it doesn't make sense to me. But once again, I think (I'm a big thinker) and "look" behind these objects and see that people aren't getting these things for themselves, they are buying them to impress others (usually people they don't even like, just to appear better than them). Without having read the articles, I had already come to the conclusion that what truly matters in life are people and experiences.
I can understand your feeling of working more than you feel you should and not even based just on "hours" but based on how much of a focus it is in your life. I reflected on last year and thought about what I accomplished, and while I'm doing well, health and wealth wise, I couldn't help but consider that most of my "accomplishments" were work related. Those accomplishments seem to be trivial when compared next to the couple of friends that got married last year or had a baby, for example. But on a positive note it does give me a gauge to re-prioritize what I focus on in life.

Syed said...

Thank you for posting this article. It made me pause my thoughts for a moment and look at my ToDo list in my life to see if I am heading a wrong way.

Most recently I have started to practice and have faith in religious activities and thankfully I should say Almighty has shown some mercy and guiding me.

I believe our day to day routine has actually taken us away from our creator, every day if we just have some assigned time to just spend in peace and make that connection with our creator in just thanking all the good that has come by day and all the bad that has been avoided for us.

I feel happiness is there in us, we just don't feel it and hopefully we will enjoy our time if we start connecting again to ourselves.

Jonathan Foster said...

good post. thanks. absolutely... when i focus on "me" and the "stuff" something slips into my life like a low grade fever and just doesn't make me feel quite right. thanks. jonathan at

Anonymous said...

Really good article.

I'm 21 years old, and just about to leave university and enter investment banking. It's going to be 100 hour weeks (9am to 2/3am, 7 days a week). It's going to get me a lot of money, and that's the only reason I chose the career.

But already, before I even start I realise that I'm not going to see my friends and family as much as I want to. I realise that I haven't had a girlfriend in 3 years and this career is going to do nothing to bring me any intimacy in my life.

I feel sad and lonely and without direction. I feel like money will make things easier, I'll get to go to the best parties and see the best people. I don't know where I stand.

I understand that money gives freedom, it lets you say, screw it, i'm going to New York this weekend, and Hong Kong next weekend. But money has a price, and I'm fully aware of that.

The flip side of the coin is that every graduate career starts off rough, the hours are relatively tough everywhere for the first couple of years. I want to own a business and this is the fastest way to the money I need for that. So yeah, it's hard, but at least it compensates.

At the same time I'm fully aware that I'm hoping money will bring me the happiness I currently lack in certain areas. I think I just need to learn the hard way. Words are too easy