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Why We're So Materialistic, Even Though It Doesn't Make Us Happy

Why We're So Materialistic, Even Though It Doesn't Make Us Happy

No matter who you are, it’s easy to get caught up in the idea of acquiring new stuff. Here’s a look at why your brain is so materialistic and what you can do to keep it from overwhelming you.

Photos by: Anna Rassadnikova, S-F, Denphumi, Hibiscus81, FatFreddie and ginnerobot

Materialism is one of those things that most of us don’t want to think about, especially if it causes trouble in your marriage or stresses you out. Stereotypically, a materialistic person is a high class one-percenter snob whining about getting a Porsche instead of a Lamborghini, but it’s something we’re all prone to.

Whether it’s a gadget you’re coveting, a game you have to buy, or a brand you have to wear, we all have a materialistic side. Subsequently, there’s been a lot of research into materialism and researchers consistently come to the same conclusions: objects don’t make us happy. So why do our brains continue to convince us that they do? Here’s what’s going on.

Why We Want To Buy Things

Materialism is one of those ugly words that gets thrown around a lot. It’s best defined as an insatiable desire to own things and the belief that when those desires are fulfilled we’ll achieve happiness. Basically, materialism suggests a yardstick for success: the more you own, the better your life will be. It sounds horrible, but we all do it to some extent, even if we don’t go overboard.

We tend to equate buying things with positive emotions. Subsequently, we think that purchasing new stuff makes us happy.

In a study published in Neuron, researchers looked at what’s going on in the brain when we think about buying stuff. When a product image flashed before people’s eyes, an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens lit up when a subject liked what they saw. Essentially, the brain’s pleasure centre kicks into gear and floods the brain with dopamine at the very thought of getting something we want. The weirdest thing about this is that just thinking about buying something is pretty much the same as actually buying it. The Atlantic explains:

“Thinking about acquisition provides momentary happiness boosts to materialistic people, and because they tend to think about acquisition a lot, such thoughts have the potential to provide frequent mood boosts,” Richins wrote, “but the positive emotions associated with acquisition are short-lived. Although materialists still experience positive emotions after making a purchase, these emotions are less intense than before they actually acquire a product.”

Put plainly, our brains think that acquiring new stuff will make us happy, but we’re not entirely sure why our brains work this way. Psychology Today explains just a couple of the many theories out there trying to figure out the origins of 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…

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.

Neither of these theories are perfect, but we do know that regardless of why we’re always wanting new things, getting them rarely has a positive effect on our well-being.

Buying Stuff Doesn’t Make You Happy

Why We're So Materialistic, Even Though It Doesn't Make Us Happy

It’s probably no surprise to most of us, but study after study shows that buying stuff doesn’t make us happy. More importantly, we’re actually unhappy when we put too much value on material objects.

The big problem here isn’t just that we’re a little bummed out when someone else has more stuff than we do. It’s that when we put a lot of emphasis on material value, we’re prone to depression, personality disorders, and other issues. One study from Tufts University sums these effects pretty simply:

Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear and consistent findings. People who are highly focused on materialistic values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant. These relationships have been documented in sample of people ranging from wealthy to poor, from teenagers to the elderly, and from Australians to South Koreans. Several investigators have reported similar results using a variety of ways of measuring materialism. The studies document that strong materialist values are associated with pervasive undermining of people’s well-being, from low life satisfaction to happiness, to depression and anxiety, to physical problems such as headaches, and to personality disorders, narcissistic, and antisocial behaviours.

As we start to understand more about the correlation between materialism and happiness, we get a better idea of just how deeply it affects us. The Guardian explains some of the nastier effects of materialism:

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.

Materialism is tied to shopping pretty closely, so you can try to fight against it by understanding what’s really going on in your brain when you’re out shopping. It’s no secret that your brain does plenty of things to screw with your shopping choices. From misunderstanding numbers to believing deals are better than they are, you can fight against the ways stores manipulate you. Likewise, if you get a better understanding of why you feel inclined to upgrade your gadgets all the time you a good idea of what’s going on inside your brain when you want to buy things you probably don’t need. These tricks don’t “beat” materialism, but they can at least keep you mindful of how it’s effecting you.

Experiences Are Better Than Objects

Why We're So Materialistic, Even Though It Doesn't Make Us Happy

Think about the last time you really wanted something. Let’s say it’s a shiny new iPad. When you wanted it, you probably couldn’t think of much else. When you eventually get that iPad, you sit and admire it the first few times you interact with. As time goes on, that iPad means less and less to you.

Now, instead of thinking about that iPad, think of your last amazing holiday. Chances are, that memory makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when that iPad makes you feel nothing at all. The reason is that we tend to value experiences over objects, even if we don’t think we do.

The New York Times has a few explanations for this:

(Researchers) have found that our types of purchases, their size and frequency, and even the timing of the spending all affect long-term happiness. One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.

“It’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch’ is basically the idea,” says Professor Dunn, summing up research by two fellow psychologists, Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich.

…Thomas DeLeire, an associate professor of public affairs, population, health and economics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, recently published research examining nine major categories of consumption. He discovered that the only category to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles.

Granted — none of this means that you need to get rid of all your stuff, stop giving gifts, or boycott iPads. It’s just an explanation of why we’re so prone to buying things, even when we don’t really need them. For some people, that iPad offers an experience on par with a holiday. Likewise, sometimes we just need to buy stuff and there’s nothing wrong with that. The difference between need and want is that we rarely expect the things we need to make us happy.

We all make the mistake of believing that the more money and stuff we have, the happier we’ll be. We’re all prone to comparing what we have to what our friends and family have, and then worrying about how those objects might reflect on us as people. Unfortunately, that’s just a recipe for anxiety, depression, and unhappiness. There’s no real trick to preventing yourself from getting caught up in these materialistic values, but it’s always good to keep these ideas in the back of your mind when you’re out shopping.


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