Why We're So Materialistic (Even Though We Know It's Dumb)


I recently came across a photographic essay that showed the bedrooms of dozens of children around the world. It's beautiful and interesting, but what stands out the most is how much stuff some of these kids have — closets bursting with toys and other possessions, while others have so little — a straw mat, a cup, a threadbare shirt. (See also: Important Lessons Frugal Parents Teach Their Kids)

Of course, my instinct is to feel sorry for the little girl with only one doll, or the little boy who sleeps on a wooden pallet and proudly displays a few tattered books. Then again, that might just be materialism talking. After all, the photographs reveal nothing else about these children; whether they get enough food to eat, a safe, warm place to live, and parents who take good care of them. It's just so easy to assume that they are disadvantaged because they don't have a television and a mountain of toys.

The truth is that most us (myself included) have way more than what's required to meet our basic needs, more than is required to make our lives more convenient and comfortable, and even more than what we need to keep us happy. Well, here are a few key reasons why. (See also: Why Our Brains Want New Stuff)

Because We Can Be

True materialism is a bit of a luxury. You can only hang your happiness on the things you acquire when you actually have the money to acquire things. If you don't, you probably have to find happiness elsewhere, such as in experiences or connections with others. As it turns out, those are better places to look for happiness anyway.

It's an Easy Fix

Money always holds the promise of opportunity — the chance to look better, to feel better, to fit in with everyone else. The problem is that while clothes and cosmetics and fancy electronics often tempt us with these sorts of promises, there's only so much they can deliver. I thought about this when I read a piece about a young woman who spent a $66,000 inheritance on "basically nothing." Guess what? Once the $66,000 was gone she still felt like she had nothing. Even though she had $66,000 worth of stuff.

We're Sad or Stressed

You've probably heard the term "retail therapy." If you're an average North American, you've probably indulged in a little retail therapy yourself. (I sure have.) As it turns out, people don't just look to shopping to cheer them up after a particularly dull day at work. A study published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science found that people in a war-torn area (in this case, Israel), even tried to use it to treat the post-traumatic stress they suffered as a result of bombings in their area. As you might have guessed, it didn't work. In fact, the most materialistic people in the study were most likely to try to soothe themselves with compulsive shopping, and to struggle more to recover from their stress. (See also: How to Mend a Broken Heart Without Breaking the Bank)

We're Hoarders

Have you ever noticed how very satisfying it is to spend all day trying to find the perfect pair of shoes? Actually, it's so satisfying (at least for me) that even the shoes pale in comparison. That's why many economists and politicians believe that materialism comes naturally — that it's in our blood. The truth, however, is a lot more complicated. One recent study found that hunter-gatherers with little contact with commercial society tended to be less materialistic than those who lived near urban centers, and were more likely to trade and share among each other, rather than try to amass more goods for themselves. So, while the desire to attain things might be universal, the need to keep them is probably cultural. True hunter-gatherers must share to survive, while in modern economies, hoarding more goods may actually be more beneficial — at least to a point. (See also: 25 Things to Throw Out)

Our Media Encourages It

Advertising tells us we need more clothes, cosmetics, cars, cleaning products — you name it. There are no ads that tell us to save our money or live with less. There are no ads that tell us that these things won't make us happy. In fact, they imply the opposite. And they do it really well. It's why I stopped reading women's magazines; every one seemed designed to convince me that my skin should be smoother, my hair should be shinier, and my butt should be smaller. Of course, they also had all the product suggestions to go with those admonishments. How very convenient.

Possessions Are an Outward Sign of Status (and Progress)

A poll conducted by IPSOS in 2013 took a look at the level of materialism in countries around the world. The most materialistic country — by a long shot — is China, where a whopping 71% of people said they gauged their success based on the things they owned. The Chinese were also most likely to say that they felt they were under a lot of pressure to make money and be successful. Other developing countries, like India, Turkey, Brazil, and South Korea, reported similarly high levels of materialism, while in the United States, only 21% of people said they rated their success based on their possessions. It appears that a country's stage of development is correlated with how closely possessions are equated with success among its people. Perhaps for those who've become accustomed to living with so little, luxury goods have more appeal. (See also: Are You Poor Because of Peer Pressure?)

But I suspect something else is going on, and that those of us in more developed countries simply take the fact that we will have a lot of possessions for granted and are now on the hunt for something else to make us happy.

Why do you think we're so materialistic? Please share your ideas in comments!

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Guest's picture

Living in a tiny NYC apartment has helped me embrace minimalism. Every material item is something else I have to maintain and clean. I've come to find experiences are much more rewarding than things.

Tara Struyk's picture

Right on:-) Minimalism by necessity isn't such a bad way to go, especially in a city where there's so much to do!

Guest's picture

I live and work in Seoul, S. Korea and possessions are definitely a status symbol. Near my home there is an apartment building with only studio apartments. The parking lot is filled with many new and expensive cars with monthly payments that are probably many times higher than their rent.

Guest's picture

I have cut out lots of advertising over the last 2 years. Its been very helpful in helping me to reduce my own consumerism.

Guest's picture

It's funny. I think about words and the way we use them and I find that things like minimalism and skinny are probably the two trendiest words to throw around the internet now. But how about we go back to expressing moderation as a possible ideal- enjoying a bit of life while keeping health (financial and physical and ecological) in mind? How do we present the idea that while having less than obvious excess, being more slender than morbidly obese is better than those alternatives without being labeled a jerk or discredited for not swinging into the polar opposite extreme?

Tara Struyk's picture

I don't know the answer to that. Maybe by talking about it. Definitely by thinking about it. Thanks for the thoughtful comment:-)

Guest's picture

Personally, the main area that I struggle with materialism in my life is fashion. I think there are a lot of factors that contribute to materialism, but ultimately I think we are searching for a lasting satisfaction that we never seem to find. Life seems at times to be all about acquiring the next thing, reaching the next goal, or the next big thing in life. Once we reach that point, we might be content for a little while, but then we start desiring something else. It's a pretty ruthless cycle.

Tara Struyk's picture

The striving part is probably human nature, and it isn't such a bad thing. I think the key is to put more focus on striving for things that provide more lasting satisfaction, like having better relationships, achieving major life goals and enjoying new experiences. Those things never wear out or go out of style. That said, I like a new pair of shoes as much as the next gal ... I'm just trying to find balance there somewhere:-)

Guest's picture
Kathleen S.

I think I'm more horrified by the overflowing piles of excess than by the barely furnished rooms. But at least those children who have barely furnished rooms have ROOMS and not just a blanket or mattress outdoors on the ground. :-(