Materialism and Its Discontents

“To do or to have?” That Hamlet-like question is the title of a scientific paper by Leaf Van Boven and Thomas Gilovich, published several years ago in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It’s a simple paper, just a few pages long, but I doubt there's another piece of social science that I think about more during a typical day. In essence, the scientists tried to solve the problem of scarce resources. If our goal is to maximize happiness, then how should we spend our money? Should we buy things? Or should we buy experiences?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious – buy things! Things last! We can return to things. Experiences, on the other hand, are inherently ephemeral; they can only be consumed once. Buying an experience is like setting money on fire. 

But this intuition is exactly backwards - the person who wants more toys has misunderstood the nature of happiness. Van Boven and Gilovich demonstrated this by conducting a number of straightforward experiments. In one survey, they asked people to describe a recent purchase that was made with “the intention of advancing your happiness and enjoyment in life.” It turned out that those who described the purchase of an experience, such as a music concert or trip to the beach, reported much higher feelings of happiness than those who purchased objects. They were more likely to consider the money well spent and less likely to wish they’d bought something else instead. Similar results emerged from follow-up surveys, as reminding subjects of a recent “experiential purchase” made them happier than reminding them of a recent material purchase. Most impressive, perhaps, is that this effect seems to increase over time. While objects depreciate - we habituate to their delights - experiences become even more valuable, as we return again and again to the pleasurable memory. (The scientists refer to this as the process of positive reinterpretation.) One lasts, the other doesn’t. But what lasts isn’t what we can hold in the hand. 

I bring this paper up because, in the last year or so, there have been a number of very interesting studies on materialism and its discontents. While Van Boven and Gilovich showed that purchasing experiences made us happier, these new studies help reveal why purchasing things does not. They expose the heart of darkness inside every mall.

  • Marsha Richins, in the Journal of Consumer Research, showed that “high materialism consumers” typically experience a post-purchase hangover. While they were extremely excited about the object before they bought it – they imagined all the ways it would make their lives better – that excitement quickly dissipated once they actually possessed the object. According to Richins, this disappointment is rooted in a false belief among the most materialistic shoppers that “purchase of the desired product will transform their lives in significant and meaningful ways…For these consumers, the state of anticipating and desiring a product may be inherently more pleasurable than product ownership itself.” 
  • A team of psychologists conducted three longitudinal studies looking at the relationship between materialism and well-being. The results were clear-cut: “Across all three studies, results supported the hypothesis that people’s well-being improves as they place relatively less importance on materialistic goals and values, whereas orienting toward materialistic goals relatively more is associated with decreases in well-being over time.” In their most interesting experiment, the psychologists exposed a sample of “highly materialistic US adolescents” to a financial education program called “Share Save Spend,” which encourages people to balance spending with sharing and saving. Those teens randomly assigned to the intervention showed a decrease in materialism and an increase in self-esteem. They bought less, and thought better of themselves.
  • In the journal Communication Research, a group of Dutch psychologists help reveal the roots of materialism. They place the blame, at least in part, on advertisements targeting children, noting that kids who saw the most ads were also the most materialistic. This new study builds on previous work by the lead researcher, Susan Opree, which suggested that the “material values portrayed in advertising teach children that material possessions are a way to cope with decreased life satisfaction.”
  • A new study led by psychologists at Baylor University found that people who scored high on measures of materialism were also less grateful for what they had. According to their statistical analysis, this lack of gratitude was largely responsible for the observed relationship between materialism and decreased life satisfaction.

Taken together, the psychological literature on materialism is a fairly persuasive critique of modern capitalism, which conditions us to seek happiness in all the wrong places. That said, I’m most intrigued by a 2013 study on materialism and loneliness by Rik Pieters at Tilburg University, if only because his study complicates, ever so slightly, the strong version of the anti-materialism argument. It shows that materialism is usually a terrible way to seek life-satisfaction, but that it’s not always terrible. Some materialists live delighted lives. 

First, a brief taxonomy. It’s generally recognized that there are three subtypes of materialism. The first is material measure, which is the tendency to see possessions as a status signal or sign of success. (You buy the Porsche because it shows you can afford it.) The second is material medicine, in which purchases are seen as a quick way to elevate levels of future happiness. (You buy the Porsche because you believe the car will make your future self content.) Lastly, there’s material mirth, a world-view in which material possessions are believed to be part of the good life. (You buy the Porsche because it’s a beautiful car.)

Pieters was interested in the causal relationship between materialism and loneliness, as numerous studies have quantified the severe negative consequences of the lonely life. (According to one recent study of older people led by John Cacioppo, feelings of extreme loneliness increase the risk of premature death by 14 percent, which is roughly twice the impact of obesity.) Although it’s often speculated that materialism causes loneliness – our obsession with things leads us to neglect our relationships – Pieters wondered if the “influence might also run in the opposite direction.” Perhaps we aren’t lonely because we’re always shopping. Perhaps we shop because we’re always lonely.

To untangle this causal knot, Pieters collected data from 2,500 consumers between 2005 and 2010. He gave them standard surveys to measure materialism and its subtypes, asking people to rate, on a scale from 1 to 5, the extent to which they agreed with a series of statements about shopping and happiness. (“I like to own things that impress people,” “I like a lot of luxury in my life,” “Buying things gives me lots of pleasure,” etc.). They were also assessed in terms of loneliness, and asked whether or not they agreed with sentences about their social life. (“I feel in tune with the people around me,” “There is no one I can turn to,” “I feel left out,” etc.) By studying the ebb and flow of materialism and loneliness over time, Pieters was able to detect some interesting statistical relationships.

His most important finding was that materialism and loneliness often exist in a so-called vicious cycle, so that materialistic tendencies make us feel lonely, which leads us to seek comfort in purchases and possessions, which only makes us feel even lonelier. It’s a downward spiral that ends with lots of misery and credit card debt. Interestingly, loneliness seemed to have a bigger causal effect on materialism than materialism did on loneliness. This suggests that the best way to escape the “materialistic treadmill” is to make some new friends. 

But there’s an interesting exception to the rule. While two subtypes of materialism were locked in a vicious loop with loneliness – the worst was material medicine, followed by material measure - there was one subtype of materialism that was actually associated with reduced feelings of loneliness. Those who score high in material mirth, Pieters writes, are those who “derive pleasure from the process of buying things,” enjoy spending money on “things that are not practical,” and like “a lot of luxury in life.”

Why is this mindset so much more effective? Nobody really knows. Pieters speculates that part of the answer has to do with intrinsic motivation, as those high in mirth tend to buy things for the simple reason that buying things is fun. Their materialism is not about impressing others, or improving the mood of a future self – it’s about the sheer delight of spending money. Such an attitude, Peters writes, might spill over and “indirectly improve social relationships,” as mirthful people also tend to lavish cash on family vacations, nice meals and other shared experiences. 

Perhaps. Or maybe those merry materialists just like what they bought. Here's the great Frederick Seidel, the poet laureate of material mirth, writing about his new Ducati motorcycle in a poem called "Fog":

I spend most of my time not dying.
That’s what living is for.
I climb on a motorcycle.
I climb on a cloud and rain.
I climb on a woman I love.
I repeat my themes.

Here I am in Bologna again.
Here I go again.
Here I go again, getting happier and happier.

The motorcycle, says Seidel, is not merely a thing. It's an experience. If we live our life right, what's the difference?

Van Boven, Leaf, and Thomas Gilovich. "To do or to have? That is the question." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 85.6 (2003): 1193.

Pieters, Rik. "Bidirectional Dynamics of Materialism and Loneliness: Not Just a Vicious Cycle." Journal of Consumer Research 40.4 (2013): 615-631.