In modern consumer culture, we often hear the term ‘materialism’ but without understanding its meaning and the ways in which it impacts on us. Materialism is often defined as a cultural system in which self-interest and material goals are given priority over all others. It refers to the amount of value that someone attaches to the consumption and/or attainment of possessions. While this trait forms the cornerstone of Western consciousness, and is thus considered ‘normal,’ materialism brings with it many negative mental health consequences that compete with the short-term advantages it affords the economy.
A number of studies show that materialism has been increasing at a rapid rate in recent decades, which should not come as a great surprise to anyone. Recent times has even witnessed the upsurge of so-called ‘consumption disorders’ such as compulsive spending, compulsive shopping, and so forth. Without question, the object has taken center stage in the modern age, and we even use the label ‘consumer’ to describe ourselves.
In her paper “Materialism, Desire and Discontent,” Marsha Richins summarizes research on the psychological consequences of materialism. Highly materialistic people have been found to score significantly lower on measures of happiness, life satisfaction, contentment, generosity, quality of friendships, and enjoyment of leisure activities. Envy and impaired self-esteem also accompany a strongly materialistic orientation.
While materialism is a key operating requirement for a society heavily invested in consumption and discontent, it is clear that such a system carries a high cost in terms of mental health and social well-being. There are also some inherent flaws in the act of consumption that can lead to confusion and angst. Although the immediate act of consuming something can be pleasurable, our brains are such that we adapt quickly to that experience, with new desires taking their place. It is not long before the original objects of our appetites fail to offer any sort of thrill, and people find themselves on an existential wild goose chase that leads them further away from their real human needs.
The good news is that more and more people are becoming disillusioned with materialism as a way in which to frame their lives and spend their energies. Many have become aware of the social and emotional ill-effects on them and their families. Studies on this subject show that around half of those surveyed claim that they would gladly forego some material possessions, and even accept a lower income, in exchange for reduced stress and improved relationships with their loved ones. One thing preventing them from acting on this is the fact that two-thirds of Americans admit that shopping has become an important stress reliever. They are locked into a vicious circle that is difficult to escape.
Mental health professionals face the daunting task of treating disorders that are actively propagated in today’s consumer-driven culture. The new question on their minds is how to treat a society that is making people sick. Until now, the focus has been on the individual and how to make that person ‘normal,’ but being normal in a sick society is obviously not the solution.
John F. Schumaker’s latest book is “In Search of Happiness: Understanding an Endangered State of Mind” (Penguin, 2006; Praeger USA, 2007).