Our piles of crap don’t just contribute to reality-TV shows like Storage Wars and Hoarders — they also make us miserable, and not just when we can’t find the right remote or trip over a plastic robot our kid left on the floor.
Getting things like a new car or 60-inch flat-screen are goals many of us work toward. Unfortunately, these pursuits have the opposite effect we intend: Instead of making us happier, getting more stuff drags us down. In a new paper published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, Knox College psychology professor Tim Kasser shows, through a series of experiments spanning from six months to 12 years, that when people become more materialistic, their emotional well-being takes a dive.
It’s possible that the Great Recession and subsequent anemic recovery are at least partly to blame for any materialism-related malaise Americans suffer today. Scientists know that insecurity of all types, including economic insecurity, makes us more prone to materialism.
When a part of life gets turbulent, possessions look like a pretty sturdy thing to hang onto until the storm passes. “It would be likely that the economic recession would increase materialistic values… [putting] a higher priority on having money and possessions,” Kasser says.
The problem is, this is really just a coping mechanism. “Part of why we survived as a species is we’re wonderful users of stuff,” he says. Our ancestors might not have had teeth and claws or hard shells, but we could make weapons and armor to protect ourselves. “When we’re feeling insecure we orient towards materialistic solutions,” he says. “And we live in a culture that continually tells us our worth as people is based on our bank account.”
Even when materialism is defined in ways generally seen as positive in our society — financial aspirations to be successful and make a lot of money — the result of those goals is corrosive to our well-being. “Financial success values sit within a broader value system,” Kasser says. Financial success is closely related to what he calls “status values” like a person’s image and popularity — keeping up with the Jonese.
“My sense is that over the course of human history there have been many ways to demonstrate that one is a successful person… our social economic system channelizes that so the way to demonstrate it is to show you’re wealthy,” he says. “The scorecard for success is about money.” In our consumer-driven culture, the system itself depends on people telling themselves they need those truck tires or that pair of shoes or whatever else Madison Avenue convinces us we need.
The connection between our stuff and our self-esteem is a two-way street: If we become less materialistic, our well-being will improve. If our well-being improves, we tend to be less materialistic.
Kasser’s final experiment shows that it’s possible change our outlook by reducing the importance of materialistic goods and goals in our life. Researchers divided a group of adolescents and gave half material intended to get them thinking about saving money and sharing rather than spending. Teens who started out materialistic responded to the messages, and their emotional well-being rose as their materialism fell.
For adults, it’s harder to change this mentality because materialism can be ingrained over years or even decades. No, you don’t need to sell all your worldly possessions and move to the top of a mountain, but Kasser says one thing that can help is taking yourself out of environments or reevaluating your relationships with people that focus on the materialistic.