The clever folks over at the Center for the New American Dream have created a cool video. Perfect background material for my project to buy no new stuff this year, it’s about the pitfalls of materialism—and some ways we can free ourselves from it.
We’re bombarded daily—hourly—with messages that reinforce materialistic attitudes and behaviors, from reports on the importance of consumer spending and economic growth on the evening news, to advertising in media and just about everywhere we look. All these messages are pretty much telling us the same thing: that the only real pathway to happiness is through wealth and stuff.
But this attitude is taking a toll—on people and the planet. As one video commenter aptly put it: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”
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It’s supposed to make us happy, right? But, “research consistently shows that the more people value materialistic aspirations and goals, the lower their happiness and satisfaction,” the video’s narrator explains “and the fewer pleasant emotions they experience day to day.”
Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse also tend to be higher among those who place a higher value on material wealth.
As if that’s not enough, studies show that preoccupation with wealth and stuff makes prosocial values go down (e.g. cooperation, empathy, environmental concern.)
On the flip side, intrinsic values—growing as a person, being close to family and community, and doing good in the world—not only promote personal, social, environmental, and ecological well being, but also work to immunize people against materialism. It’s a see saw effect. As intrinsic values go up; materialistic values go down.
Basically, we’d all be happier if we spent more time with people we like, found meaningful work even if it paid less, or volunteered for causes we believe in.
Changing lifestyles isn’t enough though. As the video creator Tim Kasser points out, public policy can also support intrinsic values and well being. Following the Sightline mantra to measure what matters, France and Bhutan not only track GDP and other standard indicators of economic growth, but also evaluate citizens’ well being so that they can promote policies that support health and happiness.
The takeaway is that materialism is shaping us into less than great citizens and stewards. The subtext is that buying less stuff can actually make you happier.
P.S. I first heard about Center for the New American Dream a couple years back when I was looking for an alternative to corporate online baby shower registries. In their system we were able to register for secondhand baby stuff as well as non-material gifts like babysitting and meals for our first couple weeks with a newborn. Now I see that they have all kinds of resources and tools for shifting away from the consumerist mindset, including keeping your kids from becoming commercial zombies, buying less and sharing more, reclaiming your time, and simplifying the holidays. Cool stuff.