Issue #18: Stuff

Living in a material world

Comments Off on Living in a material world
by Zan Boag on December 17, 2017

Zan Boag: We live in a culture that is obsessed with stuff, yet it’s generally viewed as a negative to be materialistic. Why is this?

Tim Kasser: I think this ambivalence reflects some competing tendencies in the human mind and in human culture. On the one hand, the very earliest writings in philosophy and religion and such – Socrates and Lao Tzu and the Bible and Mohammed and Buddhism – suggest to people that materialism is pretty problematic, that it will crowd out what it means to have a meaningful life, that it will crowd out spiritual strivings, and that it will crowd out authenticity. We can see that in lots of thought that is very, very deeply embedded – especially in Western thinking. At the same time, though, there is this other competing tendency in humans that I think must have been around back then too, because why else would Lao Tzu have critiqued materialism? There was this other tendency that humans are very status-oriented and money-oriented.

ZB: In your book The High Price of Materialism you asked university students to write down their goals for the months ahead and rate how happy they’d feel on attaining these goals. Along the way they had to note their progress towards the stated goals, as well as their current levels of well-being. What did your study find?

TK: Most of the research that we do compares materialistic goals for money, image, and status, to what we call intrinsic goals for aims like one’s personal growth, connections with loved ones and friends, and contributing to the community. Usually what we’re looking at is, relatively speaking, how much effort is somebody investing in the materialistic aims in life, how much do they view those aims as important, how much is their goal or value system oriented around materialism, relative to those intrinsic aims and sometimes relative to spiritual aims. And what we found in that study, as well as in many other studies, is that when people’s value system or goal strivings are relatively highly oriented around materialistic values, they tend to report lower levels of life satisfaction, happiness, and self-actualisation, they tend to have more depression and anxiety, and they tend to report in their daily diaries that they have less experiences of joy and contentment and more experiences of anxiety and sadness and anger, as well as more physical symptoms like headaches and stomach aches and backaches and things like that. And this is a pretty robust finding. Since that 2002 book, there have been a couple of hundred studies that have looked at how people’s materialistic values relate to their well-being. The correlation is not huge but it is consistently present and consistently negative across lots of different kinds of samples, not just college students, and lots of different nations, not just America.

ZB: If it’s not possessions that will make us happy, then what will? Or is happiness elusive whether we’re chasing possessions or enlightenment?

TK: Well, I do think happiness is certainly elusive but the research does show that other values – those intrinsic values – are the aims in life that are positively correlated with people’s well-being, at least when we succeed at them. Again, the main intrinsic values that we’ve studied over the years are the importance people place on personal growth and self-acceptance, affiliation and having close relationships, and what we call ‘community feeling’, or trying to contribute to something larger than themselves, like other people in the community or the broader world or other species. Our research shows that when people prioritise intrinsic values, they tend to report higher levels of well-being and lower levels of distress. But there’s kind of a proviso to that. In some studies, we’ve found that your well-being will go up if you value those intrinsic values and you are succeeding in your pursuit of them, but your well-being actually goes down if you value those intrinsic values but you’re failing to make much progress in those goals. In contrast, it doesn’t really matter much for well-being whether you’re successful or failing at materialistic goals. That doesn’t really have much bearing on your well-being, but success or failure at your intrinsic values definitely does. So, really, the best combination from our perspective for being happy is to put as little importance on the materialistic values as you can, to focus your life mostly around your intrinsic values, and then to build a life that is oriented around those intrinsic values – and that does a good job of helping you make progress at those kinds of goals.

ZB: Why are some people materialistic and others not? What are the driving forces behind being obsessed with the acquisition of stuff?

TK: There are two main sources that our research has identified over the years. The first main source is pretty obvious and that’s social modelling. There’s substantial evidence showing that when people are exposed to messages in their social surroundings which suggest that materialism is an important aim to strive for, they are more materialistic themselves. We’ve seen that people’s levels of materialism are positively correlated with their parents’ levels of materialism, with their friends’ levels of materialism, and with their level of exposure to commercials on television. The second major set of influences on whether or not people are materialistic is what we call ‘insecurity’ or ‘threat’. Several different kinds of studies show that people focus more on materialistic values if they were exposed to threatening circumstances when they were younger, or if they are reminded of threats in laboratory manipulations. For example, growing up in a family where your parents were rather cold and controlling, versus warm and nurturing, is associated with materialistic values. If your parents divorce, that’s associated with materialistic values. If I get you thinking about your own death, that tends to increase materialistic values. And thinking about bad interpersonal relationships – people who criticise you a lot – that tends to increase materialistic values as well.

ZB: I wonder if one of the aims of advertisers is to get us thinking this way.

TK: Absolutely. A lot of advertisements use both of these sources of materialism simultaneously. They say, “you’re not good enough because you smell bad” or “nobody loves you” or “you haven’t proven you’re successful”, and they say “you could be better, you could be lovable, you could be successful if you buy this product”. So, ads mix together the threat pathway and the modelling pathway. Consumer capitalism uses the same combination. In very extreme consumer capitalist cultures like Australia and the United States, there is often a cutting away of the social safety net, a cutting away of broader community support and extended family support that tends to provide a sense of security; plus there are all the concerns about corporate takeovers and losing your job and such like that. So, there are many threats involved in the economy and the structure of consumer capitalism. And then at the same time the people who are held up as being the successes in society are oftentimes rich, good-looking people. We also get all kinds of materialistic messages via advertisements, obviously. And we get messages from politicians saying that what’s most important is how the stock market is doing or how GDP is going this year, etc. So, under consumer capitalism, there’s also this combination of threat and social modelling, which helps to explain the research showing that nations with more extreme forms of consumer capitalism have citizens who are the most materialistic.

ZB: We’ve spoken a little bit about the psychological effect of consumerism. Now one of the major issues we face with this is that – with our newfound ability to produce, consume, and discard on an alarming scale – the environment is suffering. Can we change or are we on a crash course to destroy the environment?

TK: I think if we continue on the course that we’re on, then we are on a crash course, yes. I think that there’s no doubt that consumption is a huge contributor to climate change, and the research bears this out. Let’s not forget species extinction either. We’re in the midst of the sixth great extinction on this planet, and we’ve got pollution issues, etc. A large amount of all that is driven by consumerism and by the fetishism of economic growth. There’s also research, by the way, consistently showing that materialistic values both at the level of an individual, as well as the level of a society, are associated with worse ecological behaviour. So, it’s clear that materialism is one of the contributors to current ecological destruction. If we continue on this path then, yes, we’re in great trouble, or at least our kids and our grandkids are in great trouble. Not to sound like a broken record but if the problem is a values problem – we think what’s important is money and economic growth and corporate profit and stuff – then the answer is a values solution. What would be a set of values that will not lead us down that ecologically destructive path? And, again, the evidence suggests that when people focus their lives around intrinsic values, they tend to behave in more ecologically sustainable ways. They tend to care less about having a lot of stuff, and they orient away from over-consumption because they’re doing activities that are satisfying in and of themselves – that’s why we call them intrinsic values. So, the question becomes, for me, how can you shift people away from those materialistic values and towards intrinsic values? Part of it is a lifestyle question, and so here we get into things like consuming with your values. Everybody’s going to buy stuff so let’s buy things that are sustainable, let’s buy things that are supporting equality, etc. We can do the same with our investments: we can invest in companies and in mutual funds that are more sustainable, rewarding those companies that support intrinsic values and punishing those that are more materialistic. I also think that at a lifestyle level we need to focus more on downshifting and on voluntary simplicity. There’s evidence suggesting that voluntary simplifiers and people who work fewer hours and earn less money are living more sustainably. So, these are some of the individual choices that we can make. But, again, individual choices are probably insufficient to avert ecological disaster. Green consumption is only going to take us so far, voluntary simplicity is only going to take us so far. We also need to shift the way that business works. Again, for me, the question is: is a business focused primarily on the materialistic values of profit or can a business value other kinds of aims?

ZB: Let’s imagine you have ultimate control in terms of policy changes that could be implemented to help address some of the challenges with consumerism that you’ve identified. What changes would you make?

TK: The first thing I would do would be to ban advertising to children under twelve years old. All the evidence shows that it’s basically unethical to advertise to children under that age because they don’t have the cognitive capacity to understand what’s called ‘persuasive intent’. They don’t understand that the ad is manipulating them. They’re also still in the process of forming their identities. So, I think if we can ban advertising to children, we’re not only doing something good immediately but we’re also decreasing part of how children are socialised into materialism. Research shows that materialism levels are at all-time highs among American youth. And some evidence that Jean Twenge and I have collected suggests that this increase is due, in part, to levels of advertising in the culture. So, I’d ban advertising to children; that’d be the first thing I would do. The second thing I would do would be to… I think in America at least we need a twenty-eighth amendment that makes it clear that the rights enumerated in the Constitution are rights of people, not of corporations. I think that would take some enormous steps forwards by diminishing corporate power. A third thing that I would do would be to change our indicators of progress right away. There are lots of different alternatives out there that countries like Bhutan, and cities like Jacksonville in Florida, and Santa Monica in California, are already using. All of these indicators include economic topics, but they also take into consideration other indicators of progress too, like well-being, ecological sustainability, equality, etc. The fourth thing I would do would be to end the tax write-off for advertising. Right now in America, and probably in Australia as well, any money that corporations spend on advertising is considered to be a legitimate business expense, and it’s not taxed. I would tax that at a 30 per cent ‘value pollution rate’, and I would use that money to support programs that promote intrinsic values. The last thing that I’ll mention I would do would be to increase parental leave and sick leave. In America at least, we’re completely uncivilised in my mind because our policy is that when a woman has a baby she has twelve weeks unpaid leave, which many – especially poor parents – can’t even take because they can’t afford to be unpaid for that long… I think if we were to flip that around and give women and men the opportunity to have paid maternal and paternal leave, I think that would be a very clear value message and would shift us in the right direction. So, those would be the five top things on my political agenda.

ZB: As a final question, I’d like to come back to the topic for this edition, which is ‘stuff’. Can we escape our stuff?

TK: I guess there are two questions: “Can we escape our stuff?” and “Can we escape our desire for stuff?” Can we escape our stuff? No. We are material beings. We need to eat, we need to have clothes, we need to have some shelter, etc. So, a complete escape from stuff is unrealistic given our existential situation. Can we escape a desire for stuff? I think the answer is probably also no. I think there’s something really deep in the human psyche that leads us to look at stuff and say, “Oh that’s cool, I’d like to have that.” I see it in myself and I’ve been studying the problems associated with materialism for twenty years. But I do think what we can do is to learn that the quality of our lives is not actually all that dependent on how much stuff we have, on having the newest stuff, on always striving for more stuff, etc. I do think we can learn that we can escape being captured by our stuff, if you will. We can let our stuff be the stuff we need it to be in order to do the things we’ve got to do. Let me put it this way. I often say to people that money can solve money problems, but the real problem occurs when people try to use money to solve non-money problems. Money helps solve the problem of getting enough to eat, but when you’re trying to use money to solve the problem of love or self-esteem, then you’re using money for something that money is not really made for, and it’s not going to work. Another way to think about it is to consider the Buddha. All that he needed to attain enlightenment was a place to sit. Nowadays if you want to meditate, companies will tell you that you need to buy the meditation pillow and the meditation tape and the meditation pants and the meditation incense, etc. But you don’t really need any of that stuff! It’s easy to buy into thinking that you need that sort of stuff, and that’s what we need to escape. That’s the mental change that has to happen, to recognise that: I don’t need stuff in order to solve all of my problems in life… That’s the way in which we can, I think, better live a balanced life where stuff is part of our lives – it has to be, because we’re material beings – but it doesn’t consume our lives, it doesn’t take over our lives, and it doesn’t become more than it ought to be.


From New Philosopher issue #18 ‘Stuff’. Tim Kasser, Professor and Chair of Psychology at Knox College, is an American psychologist and author known for his work on materialism and well-being. Kasser has authored numerous scientific articles and book chapters on materialism, values, goals, well-being, and environmental sustainability. He has written several books, including The High Price of Materialism, Psychology and Consumer Culture, Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity, and Hyper Capitalism. In 2003 he was named Distinguished Research Fellow for “Substantial Research Contributing to a Better Understanding of Quality of Life Issues” from the International Society for Quality of Life Studies, and in 2002 the American Library Association named The High Price of Materialism Outstanding Academic Book of 2002.

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