These days, it’s easy to fall into the trap of materialism, which actually makes us less happy. Why that’s the case and what to do about it.
These days, it’s easy to get caught up in consumption, possessions, and comfort while neglecting matters of the heart or spirit. Are you caught in the trap of materialism—the belief that having money and possessions is the most important thing in life? Even if you don’t believe that, are you living that way by default?
Consider the following:
- According to a 2019 estimate, the average American adult spends about $18,000 a year on non-essential goods and services.
- 36% of Americans surveyed in 2022 say their garage is so cluttered that they can no longer park vehicles inside.
- As of September 2022, U.S. consumer debt hit $16.5 trillion, with the average household debt among American consumers at $96,371 and average mortgage debt at $220,380.
Before we get carried away, a few thoughts about materialism:
First, there’s nothing wrong with money. It’s a powerful tool that can be used well or poorly, depending on our choices. It’s an amplifier of our character and aims.
Second, it’s okay to enjoy things. The point isn’t to deprive ourselves of the simple pleasures in life made possible by tons of hard work and eons of economic, social, and technological development. The point isn’t to deny the incredible energy and power of entrepreneurial initiative and innovation, with parallel opportunities for value creation and wealth creation, including exciting new opportunities in social enterprise and conscious capitalism.
Third, materialism can be performative, with a focus on displaying what we own to try to impress others instead of just living our own lives.
The problem is mindless, impulsive, compulsive, or performative consumption–as well as an unhealthy attachment to things and a dependence on how it makes us feel in front of others.
Can we be entrepreneurial and strategic, building wealth for our families, workers, and communities, without getting captured by the game and selling our souls in the process?
Yes, but it can take wisdom and fortitude.
Where Does Materialism Come From?
It’s no secret that materialism is a big problem in our culture. Where does it come from?
Human nature, for starters. For millennia, philosophers and prophets have warned about materialism and greed. Have these temptations gone away? Far from it.
In our times, look to the increasingly sophisticated $781 billion global advertising industry. These days, we’re bombarded by ads that incessantly point out what we’re missing and what’s wrong with us, then subtly implant in us the false idea that buying things will make us happy. How convenient. Their strategy includes using our neurophysiology against us, since we get a dopamine boost when we buy new things.
Also, our false notions about the sources of happiness don’t help. There’s a prevalent myth that happiness comes from having things or from upgrading our circumstances (e.g., a promotion or raise).
“We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles
rather than by the quality of our service and relationship to mankind.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
But happiness is an inside job, not something that comes from external events or circumstances, and the biggest driver of overall happiness is the quality of our relationships.
“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics:
the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve
There’s another prevalent myth: that success brings happiness. Surprisingly, it works the other way around, according to researchers. (See our happiness series for more on how to build more happiness into our lives.)
Many of us live today as if the point of life is accumulating money so we can buy more stuff and nicer things. We conflate wealth with success, in effect reducing life to a zero-sum game of accumulations, consumption, and signaling. Where does that take us?
The Downsides of Materialism
If materialism is the belief that things will make us happy, we’re wise to put the belief to the test. Does it lead to happiness and wellbeing? Can we buy happiness?
When researchers measure levels of materialism on a scale, they look for the extent to which people judge success by the number and quality of their possessions, place acquiring things at the center of their lives, and view possessions as central to happiness. Their findings? Material things aren’t likely to increase our happiness in a meaningful or sustained way—and materialistic people appear to be less happy than others, with fewer positive emotions, lower life satisfaction levels, and more anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Ouch.
For decades, studies have revealed that people who score high on this materialism scale score lower on happiness scales. Why? Materialistic people tend to have unrealistic expectations about how much happiness possessions will bring them, leading to disappointment.
Materialistic people are rarely satisfied, often wanting more—and then more still (the “disease of more”), but never actually feeling like they have enough. When we’re caught in the grips of our materialistic urges, we want instant satisfaction and gratification, leading to an addictive cycle of wants and disappointment.
A study of 12,000 first-year students at elite universities looked at their attitudes when they were 18 years old and then measured their life satisfaction at age 37. The findings: those with materialistic aspirations when younger—with making money as their primary goal—were less satisfied with their lives two decades later.
Also, materialism can make us feel less satisfied with the amount of fun and enjoyment in our daily lives—and can bring fewer positive emotions, more negative emotions, and less meaning in our lives. It can also diminish our sense of gratitude, an important component of our happiness.
It can also affect our self-image profoundly. In materialistic mode, we tend to invest much of our sense of self-worth in what we own and in the approval of others, caring too much about what others think about us and comparing ourselves with others who have more than us. It can trap us in jobs we don’t like so that we’re able to afford all the things we think we want or need (the trap of “golden handcuffs”), sometimes to try to impress others.
An often overlooked aspect of materialism is that it can lead to perpetual busyness and what researchers call “time poverty,” or a lack of time margin in our lives, as well as workaholism.
Another downside: it creates clutter. We can spend an inordinate amount of time shopping for and managing all our possessions, which can lead to stress and anxiety as well as time away from the people we love and other more beneficial endeavors. Having all of these things can turn into a big burden in terms of our time and money. For example, one in three Americans report using self-storage to store the things they can’t fit in their homes.
“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”
-Steven Wright, comedian
A materialistic approach can get in the way of more important things in life, such as pursuing our purpose and honoring our core values. It can damage our spiritual life, and we can fall into the trap of treating people like things to be used and discarded. It can make us feel empty inside as money and possessions consume more and more of our thoughts. We know we can’t take our possessions with us when we’re gone.
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
A materialistic approach to life can affect our character, potentially leading to greed, arrogance, pride, judgmentalism, or elitism. Those ill effects on individuals in turn have ill effects on our communities and society, potentially contributing to exploitation, injustice, immorality, broken families, neglected children, and more.
“If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much,
and I would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy, sick.”
-John Steinbeck in a letter to Adlai Stevenson, 1960
Finally, being materialistic can lead to major regrets in our life, like working too much at the expense of our health and close relationships, and pulling us away from who we really are and what we’d really like to be.
What to Do About It
If the sages of old were right about the dangers of materialism, what can we do about it? A lot, it turns out.
First, we can ask ourselves who planted the idea in our head that we want or need something. We can pause to consider whether we’re being manipulated by shrewd advertisers and algorithms. In short, we can refuse to play their game, taking back control of our time and money.
Second, we can limit the amount of television we watch and social media we consume, since these can trigger accumulative urges. We can swap in other activities instead—things like exercise, sports, music, dance, painting, writing, or reading. Things like learning and growing.
Third, we can take the time to discover our purpose, core values, and passions—and build them into our daily lives. These more productive endeavors can crowd out the time we spend on mindless consumption.
Fourth, we can focus more on creating great life experiences and memories instead of accumulating things. Those tend to be cherished much more dearly in retrospect—also contributing toward our overall sense of life satisfaction.
Fifth, we can pause before we press than online ordering button or head to the mall. In their book, Love People, Use Things, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus recommend asking six questions before buying something:
- Who am I buying this for?
- Will this add value to my life?
- Can I afford it?
- Is this the best use of this money?
- What’s the actual cost? (including storage, maintenance, and other costs)
- Would the best version of me buy this?
Sixth, we can declutter our homes and workplaces so we can enjoy the freedom and dignity of simpler living. In our world of busyness and time pressure, this can go a long way.
Seventh, we can be grateful for all we have and recall that, in the sweep of human history, with so much pain and suffering across millennia in the constant battle for survival, we are obscenely privileged.
Eighth, we can flip the switch from thinking about ourselves so much—and all we want and need—to thinking more about others and how we can be of service to them—to our families, friends, colleagues, communities, and beyond. It turns out that we’re much happier when we think less about ourselves and focus more on helping others.
At the end of the day, we should decide what’s most important to us and what kind of life we want to live. In his book, Authentic Happiness, influential psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman notes different types of lives we can aspire to:
- The pleasant life: the successful pursuit of positive feelings.
- The good life: using our “signature strengths”—those character strengths (like courage, diligence, and teamwork) that are most essential to who we are—to obtain “abundant and authentic gratification in the main realms of our life.”
- The meaningful life: using our strengths to serve a larger purpose, such as raising our children, contributing to our community, or fighting for an important cause.
Of course, most of our society is organized around pursuing the pleasant life. But of the three, Seligman reports, pleasure is the most fleeting (because we habituate quickly to that feeling and then seek out more). He notes that to live all three types of lives—pleasant, good, and meaningful—is to lead a “full life,” and that the pleasant life is more like the whipped cream and cherry on top of a sundae, with the sundae coming mostly from having meaning and engagement in our lives. (See Martin Seligman’s excellent TED talk on “The New Era of Positive Psychology.”)
“And our results surprised us; they were backward of what we thought. It turns out the pursuit of pleasure has almost no contribution to life satisfaction. The pursuit of meaning is the strongest. The pursuit of engagement is also very strong. Where pleasure matters is if you have both engagement and you have meaning, then pleasure’s the whipped cream and the cherry.” -Dr. Martin Seligman
In the end, a materialistic life is unsustainable for us personally. It doesn’t lead to sustainable happiness, and our priorities, wants, and circumstances will change over time. It’s also unsustainable for the planet, as we’re seeing more and more with the damaging effects of our chosen lifestyle on the very ecosystem that gives us life.
1. To what extent are you falling into the trap of materialism?
2. Is it preventing you from focusing on more important things in your life?
3. What will you do about it, starting today?
- “Are You Trapped by Success?”
- “The Comparison Trap”
- “Beware the Disease of More”
- “The Trap of Caring Too Much About What Others Think”
- “Are You Feeling Behind? It May Be a Trap”
- See also our Happiness Series (our best articles on happiness)
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Materialism
Have few desires.”
- “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” -Epictetus, Greek Stoic philosopher
- “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” -Socrates
- “…society is a massive conspiracy to distract you from the important choices in life in order to help you fixate on the unimportant ones.” -David Brooks, The Second Mountain
- “You must remember to love people and use things, rather than to love things and use people.” -Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
- “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” -Mahatma Gandhi
- “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” -C.S. Lewis
- “The disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually. Its balance is disturbed.” -Jean-Paul Sartre, French novelist and philosopher
- “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” -Seneca, ancient Roman Stoic philosopher
- “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” -Erich Fromm
- “These religious founders [Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu…] disagreed with each other in their pictures of what is the nature of the universe, the nature of spiritual life, the nature of ultimate spiritual reality. But they all agreed in their ethical precepts. They all agreed that the pursuit of material wealth is a wrong aim…. They all spoke in favor of unselfishness and of love for other people as the key to happiness and to success in human affairs.” -Arnold Toynbee, historian
- “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 2:11
- “Man’s aim in life is not to add to his material possessions, but his predominant calling is to come nearer his Maker.” -Mahatma Gandhi
- “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” -Matthew 6:19-20
- “It is not life and wealth and power that enslave men, but the cleaving to life and wealth and power.” -Gautama Buddha
- “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” -1 Timothy 6:6-10
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!