We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like. — Dave Ramsay
Philosophers and spiritual leaders have condemned materialism for centuries, warning us of the dangers of seeking happiness and meaning through possessions. This is quite contrary to the messages we receive from our consumerist culture, telling us that if we just buy the latest phone, that new car, a bigger house, we will finally be happy.
In recent years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of clients entering therapy due to feelings of anxiety, stress, burnout and general life dissatisfaction. These are people who, on the surface, have everything they need – a home, car, stable job and so on. However, they report having too much work to do in a standard day, feel pressured to perform, often work more than 40 hours per week, feel unable to switch off, even when at home, and never have enough time for themselves, family or friends.
Recently, after having made a life change after my own experience of being stressed almost to the point of burnout for many years, I began to try to understand what’s happening in our lives which is causing so much anxiety and stress. Why are we all so busy, racing from one thing to another, with too much expected of us in all aspects of our lives, particularly in the workplace?
For most of us, this chaotic lifestyle seems to have crept up on us, without us even realising. You could say that much of our behaviour and beliefs were obtained from conditioning or what was instilled in us as young children. For instance, as I was growing up, I was aware that when I became an adult, I’d work full-time, and that included a 40-hour week. I never questioned it. It was just what everyone else was doing.
Interestingly, the 40-hour week was established in the early 1900’s at a time when most work was industrial, meaning people worked in factories or other manufacturing plants. At that time, working from home didn’t exist since all work could only be carried out in the workplace. Furthermore, two-income households were rare, meaning that whilst one adult worked, the other was home to take care of the children and perform household duties. Despite the circumstances in 2019 differing drastically from the early 1900’s, not only has the 40-hour week persisted, but with advances in technology allowing us to work anywhere, many of us continue to work from home. For instance, 80% of workers in the US work an additional 7 hours per week from home. In addition to this, many households nowadays consist of 2 income earners, leaving little time to take care of household chores and any dependents (e.g. children, elderly relatives). This has meant that people’s time and energy is severely stretched, as a full day’s work is then followed by cooking, cleaning, taking care of children etc. This creates stress and anxiety, puts a strain on relationships and also raises the question – are children getting the attention, time and care they need?
Needless to say, as working hours per household have risen over the years, so too have transport links, technological advancements and disposable income. This has made way for increased production and spending. We now live in what’s been called a ‘throwaway culture’ whereby products are intentionally created to last only for a short period, known as Planned Obsolescence, meaning we need to replace items very quickly as they break/stop working after a short time. For instance, some phones are hard to upgrade due to new versions of software which don’t work on older models. Another trick is creating parts and accessories which are incompatible with new models or different brands, meaning you need to replace products still in perfect working order since no part is available (e.g. memory cards, chargers). We then have production companies creating new models of items very quickly, causing consumers to throw away items which are still working as they don’t want others to know they’re using an ‘old version’. This is called Planned Obsolescence and is commonly used by fashion brands and electronic companies.
Of course, you can’t have production without advertising, and it’s the role of advertising to create desires which in turn drive consumption. The ploy used by companies is to link products with human needs, making you believe that buying certain products will meet these needs. For instance, an advertisement designed to sell a brand of new trainers may feature a group of young men kicking a football around as they laugh and joke around. What’s being sold here is not just trainers but friendship, happiness and a sense of belonging, which are genuine and longed-for human needs. Unconsciously, we may then choose to buy the trainers with the hope and promise that we will also feel happy, connected and experience a sense of belonging. In other words, we’re trying to meet non-material needs with material items which, of course, can never satisfy our emotional needs.
On a deeper level, you may be wondering what it is that causes us to consume too much, apart from the obvious temptations created by advertising and our wish to lead ‘the good life’. I don’t think I’d be too harsh in claiming that we live in a society which is overly concerned with money and materialism. Therefore, particularly for young people who may not have parents who can afford to provide them with what their peers have, this can lead to feelings of shame or the fear of not being accepted. Such children may then, as they grow up, equate the acquisition of material possessions with fitting in, being accepted and avoiding re-experiencing shame related to not ‘having enough’.
In a similar vein, a great number of people who may not even have had such experiences as those described above, may be using spending as a means of addressing feelings of vulnerability or inner discomfort. For instance, someone sitting at home feeling lonely or sad may see an advertisement depicting friends gathered together. They may then choose to buy the product being advertised, giving them a temporary distraction from their pain or discomfort and a false hope that buying the product will meet their need for human contact and belonging.
You could say, therefore, that consumerism capitalises on our insecurities, particularly in light of an environment in which anything we experience or purchase can be flaunted on social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook or the like. Consumer goods, therefore, have become status symbols or outer displays of ‘success’ and achievement, paving the way for the creation of a culture of envy, competition and greed. Consumerism, when taken to the extreme, promotes consuming as a path to self and social improvement, forgetting, of course, that spending on material goods can only result in improvement on a very superficial level. Psychological, emotional and spiritual improvement is neglected which, ironically, are the domains which could actually alleviate our internal discomfort.
So, at this point you may be wondering what the impact of over-consumption is on our everyday lives. According to the American Psychological Society, whilst there has been a substantial increase in consumption and overall material wealth since the 1950’s, psychological and emotional well-being have decreased (Twenge, 2000). An average to higher income can, of course, make life more comfortable, allowing you to afford medical care, education, travel and so on. However, as with most things in life, a lack of balance or an over-emphasis on material consumption can come at a cost to relationships, peace of mind and well-being. Whilst the link between money, possessions and psychological well-being is complex, a vast range of research has found a connection between materialistic values and depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and life dissatisfaction (Wasser 2011; Smith 2011; Christopher et al 2009). This may be due to the decreased ability to manage the demands of work, leisure and family time, and the neglect of interpersonal relationships and personal pursuits (hobbies, exercise, time to unwind) due to working many hours (Giacalore et al 2010; Karabati et al 2010).
As our lifestyle becomes more immersed in this system of consumption, we often slip into a cycle of wanting more things, feeling dissatisfied with what we have, and comparing ourselves to others. For some, becoming more ‘successful’ is something they want to display to others, with status symbols such as a new car, large house, yacht or expensive jewellery. What we’re not realising, however, is that what we consume costs a lot more than just the money we hand over when making a purchase. Anything we buy equates to time earning such money, thus taking away from the time which we could otherwise use for personal pursuits, to spend with our family or friends or to nurture ourselves spiritually and emotionally.
Interestingly, whilst high materialists tend to value items which display status (jewellery, designer clothing, expensive cars), low materialists tend to value products which are used and displayed privately, such as books, memorabilia and so on, and which involve learning and personal growth. Of course, as with most things, it’s all about moderation and choices. Not everyone who buys something is materialistic. In fact, we all need to purchase things and may wish to treat ourselves every now and then. There’s nothing wrong with that. What causes unhappiness is when our pursuit of material possessions comes at the cost of our mental health and emotional and physical well-being. We need to remember that over-working can cause stress and anxiety, and when we neglect our emotional and physical well-being over extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, status and image, we pay a heavy price on a deeper level.
In my next article, I’ll be talking about ways you can become more aware of your consumption habits and try to live a lifestyle which comes at a lesser cost to your physical and mental well-being. In the meantime, I invite you to reflect on your own choices and behaviour and decide if there’s anything you’d change, if you could. Awareness and knowledge are by no means enough. However, they’re the first step in making positive and meaningful lifestyle changes for your benefit and that of the people in your life who count.