The High Price of Materialism

Uploaded by centernewdream on 04.12.2011


Every day, Americans are bombarded with hundreds of messages
suggesting that “the good life” is attainable through “the goods life”
by making lots of money
and spending it on products that claim to make us happy, loved, and esteemed.
On the news shows, we hear a near-constant refrain from economists and politicians
about the importance of consumer spending and economic growth.
And around $150 billion are spent most years
to embed consumer messages in every conceivable space
from TV shows and websites
to public bathrooms and escalator handrails.
Lately, marketers have even been paying actors to drop sales pitches
into conversations in bars and city parks.
But commercialization and consumerism also reach deeper,
worming their way into people’s psyches and encouraging them to organize their lives
around higher salaries and owning more “stuff.”
Unfortunately, this can come at a high price
for the well-being of both people and the planet.
Research consistently shows that
the more that people value materialistic aspirations and goals,
the lower their happiness and life satisfaction
and the fewer pleasant emotions they experience day to day.
Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse also tend to be higher
among people who value the aims encouraged by consumer society.
Strong materialistic values also influence our social relationships,
and thereby affect other people’s well-being.
Scientists have found that materialistic values and pro-social values are like a see-saw
as materialistic values go up, pro-social values tend to go down.
This helps explain why people act in less empathic, generous, and cooperative ways
when money is on their minds.
When people are under the sway of materialism,
they also focus less on caring for the Earth.
The same type of see-saw is at work here
as materialistic values go up, concern for nature tends to go down.
Studies show when people strongly endorse money, image, and status
they are less likely to engage in ecologically beneficial activities
like riding bikes, recycling, and re-using things in new ways.
Clearly, if we hope to have a happier, more socially just,
and more ecologically sustainable world
then we need to develop ways to diminish the power of materialistic values
in our personal lives and in society.
Two basic principles for change can help frame the way forward.
First, we need to understand what causes people to prioritize materialistic values.
For instance, studies show that people focus more on material things
when they feel insecure.
So, instead of buying a new handbag or power tool
the next time you’ve had a blow to your self-esteem,
consider a different coping strategy
like spending time with friends or taking a walk outside.
Scientists also know that the more that people are exposed to the media,
the more they prioritize materialistic values.
A couple of ways to diminish the onslaught of consumer messages
are to use Ad-Block to hide ads on the Internet,
or to hit “mute” when commercials play on TV.
But these steps can only take us so far.
We also need to get active and start to remove advertising from public spaces
and from our children’s schools
so that people aren’t exposed to materialistic messages so often.
The second principle for change involves promoting intrinsic values
for growing as a person, being close to one’s family and friends,
and improving the broader world.
The research shows that intrinsic values not only promote personal, social and ecological well-being,
but can also act to immunize people against materialism.
It’s that see-saw again
as intrinsic values go up, materialistic values tend to go down.
So part of the trick is to build a life that expresses your intrinsic values.
That might involve spending more time with people you care about,
finding meaningful work, even if it pays less
and taking part in volunteer opportunities for causes you care about.
But, again, changing our lifestyles is not enough.
We also need to advocate for policies that promote intrinsic values.
For example, countries like France and Bhutan have recognized that
they can’t only focus on GDP and other measures of economic growth.
Now they are starting to regularly assess citizens’ well-being
and sense of connection to their communities
so as to develop policies that truly encourage these intrinsic values.
Similar efforts are underway in some parts of the United States,
but they need more support.
The grip that consumerism and commercialism have on our world can seem inescapable,
and there are certainly powerful forces that push materialistic values on us.
But by making changes in our personal lives, and by working for broader societal changes,
we can break the hold of materialism
and be freer to live our intrinsic values.
That, in turn, would help us take important steps
toward greater personal well-being,
a more humane society,
and a more sustainable world.