Materialism: A Staple of Our Lifestyles and Economy, But Scourge of Public Well-Being?  

Adam French, Lifestyle Editor

More. This is the word of materialism. Whether from the mouth of a two year old who wants an extra scoop of ice cream or your boss wanting you to increase productivity, the idea of more holds the economy of America (among other countries, although America lies at the forefront of materialism) and the psyches of its citizens in a vice grip of perpetual greed. Perpetual greed, one would think, does not benefit its surroundings. The significant presence of greed in our society makes one think: Is this really how we should be cultivating our lives, morals, and goals? A lot of evidence suggests that the consumer culture that promotes materialism (and creates more affluent individuals) actually decreases the satisfaction we have with ourselves, our relationships, and of course, our possessions.

Before delving into the reasons that continued rampant materialism will lead to the destruction of humanity, it is important to discern how it created such a presence in our psyche, and how the economic systems in play contributed to the rise of phenomena such as people trampling one another to get a new machine to make juice with. According to Joe Cannon of the Deseret News, “The universal answer to that question came to be rooted in a completely human and materialistic explanation of knowledge. Specifically, the only way we can know what we know is through the application of our senses. Can we see it, can we touch it, can we taste it, etc.?” Essentially, Cannon believes that the transition away from heightened spirituality and towards grounded, material science in humankind’s insatiable quest for answers lead us towards the search for happiness within the realm of our senses. This transition, dubbed the Enlightenment by many scholars, occurred around 1815-1830, birthing “modern society” in the sense that the values, morals, objectives of individuals started on a course that ended with the present state.

Now that the roots of materialism were planted, all it took was constant bombardment from advertisements, the increased glorification and adulation of rich and famous celebrities, and the portrayal of wealth as accessible to the average Joe as a result of capitalism to have us all capering for gold toilet seats and chrome spinners on our wheels. The development of America’s capitalist economy also added to the development of materialism as a measuring stick of success  in our culture. Our economy, according to Huffington Post’s Matt Walsh hinges not on the normal person’s ability to “Create, produce or discover,” but to, “Just buy.” So, since the well-being of our country’s finances relies on its population to buy everything in sight, more and more will adhere to this philosophy. People get so entrenched in the thought that more possessions makes them happy that they buy more and more, and suddenly they have spent their savings, or have dug themselves a hole of discontent with their current situation. So goes the cycle of materialism.

So what can we do to cure this psychological plague on our culture? Some believe the problem lies in the essence of our economic system. The fact that succeeding in a consumeristic system lies in a want for more than everybody else definitely ingrains a certain perception of success in the populace’s brain that fuels the ambition for more money. Some think it stems from human survival instincts, an evolutionary mechanism that keeps us alert.  Most studies agree, however, that the main cause of materialism and compulsive spending lies in our own self doubt. A study in 2002 by Psychology and Marketing revealed that those with chronic self-doubt tended to have materialistic values. This self doubt in many cases is perpetrated by consumerist culture, and also materializes when an individual lacks money/possessions compared to their community. The remedy for this institutionalized self doubt lies in mindfulness, a practice predicated on experiencing the moment as it is and accepting that moment as if it was the best moment of your life (even if it is the worst). This acceptance means you don’t need material objects to be content; a revelation that brings more fulfillment than the most expensive TV on the market.

Enough studies have been conducted to realize a near-consensus in the psychological community: more money does not mean more happiness. For someone in poverty,  money can uplift them from suffering, so they are exempt from this statement. Even the extremely rich, people who go yacht shopping on the weekends suffer from higher rates of depression. This statistic alone made me rethink my idea of a successful life. Buddhism is way ahead of us in realizing the non-existent (and sometimes negative) effect of money on happiness, teaching that satisfying one material desire just causes others to multiply instead of causing true fulfillment.

 Simply put, materialism breeds greed and discontent. These two attributes aren’t really positive in any context (except maybe sports), and will not help society reach a place of higher fulfillment that we are all looking for. We are taking steps in the right direction, however, as according to a 2013 study by LifeTwist, about 1 in 4 Americans still believe that wealth determines success. We have made the steps forward as a populace, and now it is time to change the system to denigrate the significance of materialism in our lives. Things like Black Friday, for instance, promote insatiable greed for material objects. It is time to reach a higher consciousness and leave materialism behind.