Materialism Breeds Unhappiness


Are you a materialistic person? Do you look toward material and physical goods, such as money, luxury items, car, property, etc, to make you feel happy? These physical goods can be anything, extending to what may seem like daily necessities to you, such as your mobile phone, camera, mp3 player, watch, and so on.

A materialistic person is someone who has a preoccupation with the owning of material possessions, especially luxury goods and wealth, and equates them to happiness and fulfillment. This is especially so when the owning of the possessions is motivated by emotional reasons (such as to look better, feel better) rather than functional reasons (to communicate with others, to travel, and so on).

Materialism has become the prevalent trend in our society – just check out the constant, growing fixation on earning more money and owning material goods. At the same time, we are now materially better off than we ever have been, based on our all-time high consumption of mobile phones, computers and cars.

Based on that, you would think everyone should be happier today than in the past. Shouldn’t they be?

Our Unhappy Affluent Society

Apparently, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In The Affluent Society, Galbraith claimed despite the increasing wealth of the society, people are not happier – in fact, they have become unhappier. He claimed materialism bred discontentment.

When I first read this 3 years ago during one of my marketing courses on Consumer Behavior, I thought it was quite incredulous. I used to be quite materialistic back then too – I was frequently out shopping with friends, checking out the latest fashion buys, aspiring after material goods such as getting a convertible, larger house, wanting to earn more money and become better off, and so on.

In fact, it was the same way for people around me too. Everyone around me were constantly aspiring toward owning material possessions (both physical goods and wealth) because we believed they would improve our experience of life and quality of life. This was further reinforced from my experiences – I would feel happier whenever I acquired a material good I had been yearning for, and I knew this was the case for my friends too. Having more money meant having the means to get more things I want and make me better off than if I had lesser money.

Intuitively, you would think that people with huge wealth and material possessions would be happier.

The Illusion of Material Possessions

In the past few years as I started living more consciously, I have come to question the role material goals play in our lives and their link toward our happiness. For example, I would feel a great sense of gratification whenever I acquired a material possession I had been longing for – however, this gratification was usually fleeting. It was a matter of time (anywhere from a day to a year, but usually bordering on a shorter period) before I would look at the same thing that made me happy a while back and not get that same reaction. I never thought much about this and just continued acquiring more material possessions (buying goods and earning more money) to sustain my happiness. I just thought it was normal – society was evolving, my needs were changing, I was earning more money, having more spending power, thus having higher expectations which needed to be kept up with, and so on.

However, the act of acquiring more and more material possessions to be happy became a constant cycle – so much so that I couldn’t help but notice something was amiss. It felt strange to me – if these material possessions would supposedly make me happier, why did I have to continually get more of them to keep myself happy?

After much probing into myself and what I saw socially, I started to really understand what Galbraith meant by ‘materialism bred discontentment’. It turns out that Galbraith wasn’t as out of it as I initially thought he was – he was actually sharp to identify this problem that was budding back then in 1958 (when the book was written), but has evolved into quite a full-scale phenomenon today. I realized it is precisely the act of materialism that prevents people from becoming truly happy; In fact, materialism causes people to be more unhappy in the long run than anything. If you are hearing this for the first time, this concept might seem entirely absurd to you. I will explain what I mean in the remainder of the article.

Material Possessions: Artificial Symbols of Happiness

If you probe deep into our desires toward material possessions, you will find we have come to hold many illusionary beliefs about these possessions. We look upon them as bridges to our idealized lives, helping to increase our happiness, to improve our satisfaction of life, to increase our self esteem, to boost our confidence, to make us feel more worthy, to feel more attractive, etc. We see material goods as tools that will help us improve our quality and experience of life. It seems our problems will no longer be around or will be reduced considerably if we are to have these material possessions. Material possessions have evolved into our holy grail and represent symbols of hope, happiness and joy. However, these symbols are no more than just artificial creations by people.

Linking Happiness with Material Possessions

Our advertising and consumer goods industries have a large role to play in that. They invest billions every year in advertising and marketing campaigns which create and enforce these linkages in our mind. Without this, we would not even come to associate these possessions with any of the emotions we have for them now.

So how exactly do the marketers do it? They first develop an understanding of the dissatisfactions you are facing in life, which can be low self esteem, loneliness, dissatisfaction with work, dissatisfaction with life, etc. From there, they create an imagery that will be aspired by you on the whole – promising love, happiness, acceptance, worthiness, etc. They design marketing strategies which link their products with this aspired image.

This product-image linkage is conveyed from the marketing campaign, product design, packaging, to advertising. In advertisements, the visual, audio and sensory cues and messaging you see are all consciously crafted stimuli that establishes this link.

This linkage actually happens for all products and brands in the market, and especially so for imagery-driven brands (i.e. luxury brands). Some examples would be cars, fashion, phones, cameras; though it can apply even your household brands such as shampoo and toiletries. This is why products, namely their brands, seem to have a personality of their own nowadays.

For example, ask the average person in our society what he/she thinks about Nike, and we will get adjectives like ‘just do it’, ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ’empowerment’. Or if we ask someone what he/she thinks about Apple, and we are likely to hear things like ‘being different’, ‘cool’, ‘stylish’, etc. Would people have come to think this if they had never been exposed to any stimuli directly or indirectly generated by those brands? Think about other brands you are commonly associated with and examine the kind of thoughts and feelings that are triggered. Would you have ever thought this if you had never been in contact with any of the marketing stimuli or people who had been in contact with its marketing?

As people start getting exposed to these marketing stimuli, this product begin to represent a certain image in their minds. People who have aspirations similar to what the product represents start to want to own it. These people work toward achieving these possessions because having them makes them feel like they have addressed that particular desire. When they eventually acquire it, they feel satisfied/happy, albeit for a brief period of time.

The Continuous Cycle of Materialism

However, when you probe deeply, materialism prevents people from being ever truly happy. It is like a catch 22 situation, where the very reason that created the situation prevents it from being resolved.

When the time comes to trigger a new wave of consumption, marketers start linking people’s aspirations and promise of happiness/joy/satisfaction with new products. The end result? You become dissatisfied with the material goods you have and seek to get the new ones. You purchase these new products to be happy and discard your old products. This leads to the continuous cycle of materialism.

Materialism Breeds Discontentment

While all this is taking place, the issues you face in your life never get addressed nor healed. They just remain there, untouched. When you strive toward material possessions to make yourself happy, it keeps you from working on those inner issues you are facing in your life and yourself.

This is why materialism breeds discontentment. Materialism prevents you from addressing issues in your life which will lead to actual, real happiness. When you are materialistic, you start seeking your satisfaction in your material possessions. However, physical goods can only act as a temporary, artificial placeholder to cover up your gaps. They are impermanent and external. They are not who you are. While the physical goods will change and be discarded eventually over time, you don’t. You are the constant that will always remain. The issues inside of you will always be there unless you address it. Instead of looking outwards toward material goods, you need to address these issues from inside out.

Breaking Out Of Materialism

By hinging on material possessions to make yourself happy, you prevent yourself from getting out of the loop of materialism. It can be quite a sticky situation to be in, because you are always gratified with this false sense of joy whenever you get something new or get more wealth, especially so if your reason for acquiring it was more for emotional than functional reasons. The false sense of joy you get reinforces your desire to get more of it. It becomes sort of a subconscious conditioning in your mind, where the positive reinforcement you get triggers you to continue on the behavior to receive more of the ‘reward’. Material possessions thus becomes your reliable, go-to solution to solve satisfactions, problems or fill up gaps in life.

The only way materialistic people can break through the cycle of materialism is when they step outside of their belief system that material goods bring happiness, and start examining the notion itself. This can happen when someone consistently pursues material possessions to gain happiness, only to find that there never seems to be an end point to this pursuit. Your moods become tied to the acquisition of material goods and wealth. Despite all the possessions you keep acquiring, the feeling of dissatisfaction always seems to linger at a corner somewhere, never quite going away. It keeps going on and on until you put a brake to it and decide that this is enough.

Achieve Happiness Without Material Possessions

When I became conscious of the artificial connection that was formed in my mind between material possessions and happiness, I began to break out of it. Me leaving my day job last year and not having an income turned out to be an excellent opportunity for me to dig deep into the materialistic aspect of me. Whenever I want to buy something, I would question myself – Why do I want this? What are the triggers that led to me wanting to buy this? What is the inner gap I’m trying to feel inside by wanting to buy this?

It can be quite elusive at times, too. Many times, my inner probing has led me to uncover insecurities and dissatisfactions which I was never fully aware of initially. When my purchase desire is triggered by dissatisfactions, I would instead identify how I can address that dissatisfaction within, rather than buying the good. This is helped me tremendously in my journey of my self discovery, personal growth and becoming a fuller, more conscious being.

It is from this period where I really rose above and permeated the illusion of material possessions that society, media and people around us kept reinforcing. The emotional value and attachments I held toward money, my clothes, accessories and physical goods denigrated; what’s left in place was just their functional value. With the exception of what’s needed to get by in life, these material goods have become nice-to-have’s, whereby my happiness is not anchored on them.

For example, I have lost the zest I had in the past for shopping. Whenever I pass by shopping malls with my friends, there is no urge or desire to purchase; on the rare occasion where I do end up buying something, the level of gratification is never the same as I used to have in the past.

Today, the kind of relationship I have with material goods and money is totally different from in the past. It has fully liberated me because I no longer base my happiness on my material possessions. Despite being materially ‘worse off’ now than 4 months ago (in terms of income), I actually feel much more fulfilled and happier than before.

Probing deep into your materialistic tendencies

Ask yourself this – Are there any material possessions you look to own (more of) to make you happy? What are the possessions that will make you unhappy if you do not have them?

Why do you need them to be happy? What emotional benefits are you looking to get out of this? Each emotional benefit represents a certain gap you feel inside of you. For example, if you are buying something to make you feel more confident, it means that deep down, you don’t feel as confident as you would without it. If you are buying something to make you feel more attractive, it means you don’t feel as attractive without it.

Instead of jumping immediately to acquire that material possession, think about how you can resolve these dissatisfactions inside you. What can you do to resolve these dissatisfactions without material possessions? How can you attain happiness without material possessions?

Don’t look toward material possessions as your source of happiness because you are going to hit a dead end with that path. Material possessions are just a temporary ornament in your life. Instead, work on achieving happiness in yourself, outside of material goods and wealth. That’s where you will find an unwavering source of happiness and contentment.

Image: Materialism