Why Materialism Makes You Miserable (And What To Do About It)
materialism makes you unhappy

Why Materialism Makes You Miserable (And What To Do About It)

There’s an invisible force in this world that turns people into selfish, ungrateful, anti-social, unfriendly, and miserable creatures.

If you’ve read the title of this article, you know I’m talking about materialism.

In today’s society, it’s almost impossible not to develop any materialistic tendencies. Think about it, from a very young age we are being bombarded with glorification and celebration of the rich and famous in movies, advertisements, billboards, media, and so on.

We are taught that being a success in this world means being rich, famous, handsome, and admired by the masses.

It’s exactly this kind of programming and social conditioning that gets in the way of living a happy and fulfilled life. After all, how could you ever be satisfied if you believe in the materialistic values of a society that tells you the only path to happiness is through getting and being more. More what? More money, more friends, more cars, more Facebook likes, more Social Media followers, and so on.

Here’s the thing: Happiness and materialism are somewhat mutually exclusive; you can’t have both at the same time. That means, if you want to feel truly happy and fulfilled, you will sooner or later have to get rid of your materialistic tendencies. You can either do that right now, in a few months, or in 5 or 20 years. I would argue the sooner the better, but I understand that you might need some convincing.

Which is where this article comes into play. I will first discuss what materialism is, then I’ll show you why it is so detrimental to your well-being and happiness, and then I will show you seven proven strategies to help you overcome it.

What Is Materialism Anyway?

“A doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress.”

That’s the official Merriam-Webster definition of materialism.

Here’s another one from Marsha Richins and Scott Dawson, two leading researchers in the field and creators of the first scale to measure materialism: “People are materialistic to the extent that they place acquiring possessions at the center of their lives, judge success by the number and quality of one’s possessions, and see these possessions as vital to happiness.”

I wanted to include these definitions because they help us understand that not all possessions necessarily stem from a materialistic motivation. For example…

  • Buying a Lamborghini to impress others = materialistic
  • Buying a Lamborghini because you love driving fast cars = not materialistic
  • Starting a business because you want to become rich = materialistic
  • Starting a business because you’re passionate about it and want to self-actualize = not materialistic

You see, materialistic possessions are fine. It’s the underlying motivation that makes all the difference.

With that definition out of the way, let’s now turn to the many negative side effects of materialism…

Why Is Materialism So Bad For Us?

If you don’t think materialism is a big deal, get a load of this. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading happiness researcher, materialistic tendencies are detrimental to your happiness and your social relationships. She sums up the negative consequences in her book The Myths of Happiness:

“Why are materialistic tendencies important to identify? A mountain of research has shown that materialism depletes happiness, threatens satisfaction with our relationships, harms the environment, renders us less friendly, likable, and empathetic, and makes us less likely to help others and contribute to our communities.”

A little bit later, she goes on to add:

“At the individual level, materialistic individuals are less satisfied and grateful for their lives, have less purpose, feel less competent in general, are more antisocial, and have weaker connections with others. Indeed, when it comes to relationships, those with materialistic goals not only rate their own social interactions more negatively, but people in general rate their relationships with materialists as less satisfying as well.”

Basically, materialism renders you less happy, less grateful, less friendly, less likeable, less empathetic, and less purposeful. But hey, instead it makes you more anti-social, egoistic, incompetent, unfriendly – and it makes people think you’re an asshole on top of it.

It’s like I said in the beginning. If you want to be truly fulfilled, happy, and the greatest version of yourself… you will sooner or later have to part ways with materialism.

You can either do it now with some of the strategies I provide below, or you can wait for a worse time some when in the future.

How To Let Go Of Materialism

Hopefully you’re sold on the fact that letting go of materialistic tendencies is a smart move. The good news is that anyone can overcome materialism with a bit of patience and the right strategies.

Here are 7 tips that you can add to your arsenal…

1. Start Pursuing Intrinsic Goals, Not Extrinsic Goals

Social psychologists differ between two different motivations or goals that people have. I wonder if you can spot where materialists fit in.

  • Extrinsic goals. These are all about becoming rich or famous, seeking power over others, and polishing your public image. They are all about “making it”. They are a means to an end. They are about achieving a certain desired outcome while completely neglecting the process of getting there.
  • Intrinsic goals. These are goals that fuel who you are as a person. They fulfill you deeply. And most importantly, they fulfill your core human needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They are about enjoying the journey. Whereas extrinsic goals are only a means to an end, intrinsic goals are an end onto themselves. They are personally meaningful to you and you would engage in them just for the sake of it (without desiring some ulterior motive).

Materialists are a prime example of people who are pursuing extrinsic goals.

Which is why materialism is making people so miserable. Extrinsic goals have been shown to lead to poor mental health, anxiety, depression, narcissism, and even poorer social functioning.

The good news is that it’s possible for anyone to switch from extrinsic goals to intrinsic goals. It’s a switch that comes with many benefits as intrinsic goals have been shown to improve people’s happiness, self-esteem, well-being, psychological health, and overall success in life.

As far as materialism is concerned, one recent study has shown just how powerful the switch to intrinsic goals can be. Participants joined a program designed to lower the value they place on materialistic goals. The control group did not receive the intervention. People in the program were taught about consumerism and encouraged to clarify their intrinsic values (e.g. personal growth, strong relationships with friends and family, and contribution to a greater good) in three sessions lasting three hours each. They were also told to make financial decisions based on those values.

Compared to the people in the control group, participants became less materialistic and had higher self-esteem over the months to come. One of the study authors, Tim Kasser, concluded:

“Intrinsic goals tend to be ones that promote greater well-being and act as a kind of ‘antidote’ to materialistic values.”

Sounds great, so how can you make the switch from intrinsic to extrinsic goals?

One way would be to simply copy what the people in the previous study did:

1. Learn more about consumerism and materialism – just finish reading this article and you’ll be good.

2. Figure out your intrinsic values. Some questions that might help: “Who are you at your best?” “Which 3 words best describe who you are as a person?”

3. Start making decisions (e.g. financial) according to those values. For example, maybe don’t go shopping this weekend and instead go on a family trip to Disney World.

You can also check out my article on intrinsic vs extrinsic goals to learn more about this crucial difference and how to apply it in your own life.

2. Realize That Materialism Is Based On A Flawed Assumption

There’s a reason why so many of us pursue extrinsic goals and fall prey to materialistic thinking. Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and goal expert, explains in her book Succeed:

“Psychologists Deci and Ryan argue that we turn to these superficial goals, these external sources of self-worth, when our needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence are thwarted again and again. This can happen when we find ourselves trapped in situations that are too controlling (robbing us of our sense of personal freedom), overchallenging (robbing us of our sense of competence), or rejecting (robbing us of our sense of relatedness).
In other words, when we are under too much pressure or denied choices, when we feel we can’t do anything right, and when we are lonely and lack meaningful relationships with others, we turn to goals that aren’t very good for us as a kind of defensive strategy. ‘If I can’t get the love I need in my life, then I’ll become rich and famous and people will love me for that.’”

We pursue extrinsic goals when our core human needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence aren’t being met. We then believe (oftentimes unconsciously) that these needs will get met once we’re rich or famous or more powerful.

This is the flawed assumption materialism is based on. We think we need all this stuff before we can be happy.

the flawed assumption behind materialism

The flawed assumption of materialism: We (unconsciously) think we need to be rich, popular, and successful so that other people will approve of us and like us. In turn, this should make us feel worthy and fulfill our needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence, which then will make us happy. 

But it doesn’t work that way. You see, when you pursue extrinsic goals, there are only two possible outcomes you can achieve:

  • You never “make it” and die along the way. You are chasing after more and more stuff your entire life, spinning endlessly in the hedonic treadmill. You die before ever getting all the stuff you thought you needed to be happy.
  • You actually do “make it”, but then realize you’re still unhappy. This is the fate of many business owners and Hollywood celebrities. They do achieve their dreams, but once they have the money and the fame they always wanted, they realize they’re still not any happier. They’re basically at the same point you are right now, but with more money, fame, and stuff.

The point here is that stuff doesn’t fulfill our core human needs and can never make us happy. That’s what spiritual teachers, grumpy millionaires, and drug-addicted Hollywood stars have been showing us since forever…

You can either make that realization right now or you can first become rich and famous and then make the realization. Why wait? Just realize it right now and skip the whole money/fame/power part and go directly towards happiness.

skip the trap of materialistic thinking

Skip the materialism trap and go straight towards getting your needs met and being happy

You don’t need to be rich first… you can start working on your happiness right now. You can start making sure that your needs are met right now. (Note: You do this by pursuing intrinsic goals instead of extrinsic goals.)

3. Practice Gratitude – It’s The Counterbalance to Materialism

I’ve written about the mesmerizing benefits of gratitude before: Being grateful makes you happier, increases feelings of joy, connectedness, love, optimism, and enthusiasm, decreases feelings of greed, bitterness, and resentment, improves your sleep, makes you physically healthier, and so on.

As far as materialism is concerned, gratitude is kind of a counterbalance. The two are mutually exclusive; as one goes up the other comes down. When gratitude increases, materialism decreases. And vice-versa.

This makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

Gratitude means acknowledging and appreciating all the good things in your life. Instead of taking things for granted, you savor and fully enjoy them. You feel as if the cup is already full or even overflowing. If you are fully satisfied with what you have, the thought of getting more has barely a chance to enter your mind.

Materialism works the exact opposite way. You take things for granted and locate the sources of your happiness in shiny new objects. Materialists, research has shown, place unrealistically high expectations in material goods. When those expectations inevitably go unmet, they put their hopes for happiness in the next object, and the next after that, in an endless and fruitless pursuit of stuff. No matter how much stuff you already you have, you always feel like your cup is empty, which makes feeling grateful for it rather difficult. That’s why you’ll always try to fill the cup with more and more things… and you’re spinning in the hedonic treadmill forever.

As you become more and more focused on external stuff, you become less and less grateful. And on the flip side, as you become more grateful, you start edging out materialistic thought patterns.

This isn’t just wishful thinking by the way. Two recent studies show just how closely linked gratitude and materialism are.

The first one showed that as materialism increased, feelings of gratitude (and life satisfaction) decreased. The study authors further revealed that materialists were less satisfied with their lives precisely because they were experiencing less gratitude. Considering the known and powerful effects of gratitude on happiness, this isn’t too surprising.

The second study showed a direct effect of gratitude on materialism. The study authors were able to decrease materialism in participants by inducing feelings of gratitude.

As gratitude increases, materialism decreases.

So, how do you become more grateful? You have a couple of research-proven options, the easiest and most practical one being so-called gratitude journaling. This involves writing down three to five random things or events you’re grateful for, from the extraordinary (you got a job promotion) to the mundane (the sun was shining today). You can do this every day or just a couple of times per week. More instructions here.

Other options include writing a gratitude letter or doing the what-went-well exercise.

4. Practice Mindfulness

If you’re not doing any kind of mindfulness practice yet, you’re not taking your personal growth serious enough. If you ask me, it’s THE #1 most important life skill you can ever learn.

Mindfulness, according to meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, is defined as ‘awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.’

Mindfulness simply means observing your own thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental way, meaning you don’t label things as “good” or “bad”.

According to mindfulness expert Erika Rosenberg, this simple technique helps us combat materialism in three primary ways:

“The cultivation of mindfulness is offered as a prescription for reducing the destructive effects of consumerism in our society because it can alert us to how we are manipulated to buy particular products, increase our awareness of the implications of consumerism in the world, and facilitate connection among people.”

Most importantly, mindfulness will help you become aware that the endless pursuit of money, fame, or power will never make you truly happy. It’s kind of hard to explain how it works, so you really have to experience it yourself.

If you want to give it a try, I suggest starting a daily practice of 10-20 minutes of mindfulness meditation every morning. I recommend using the Headspace app, which guides you through the entire technique. I haven’t found an easier way of learning mindfulness and making it a regular practice than by using this app.

5. Consume Better Information

You’ve probably heard of the phenomenon of ‘priming’ before. John Bargh, an expert in the field, defines it like this, 'Priming refers to the incidental activation of knowledge structures, such as trait concepts and stereotypes, by the current situational context.'

In a nutshell, it means that something in your environment activates a representation or association in your mind – which then influences your behavior and thought patterns.

For example, a woman shown a photograph of Angela Merkel (a powerful political figure) will deliver a more empowered and confident speech. Someone shown the Apple logo will become more creative. Or someone reading a story of old people will start to walk and talk slower.

What has that to do with materialism? Well, it has everything to do with it because you’re probably priming yourself for being more materialistic all the time.

Just have a look at the following study. Participants who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury items, to messages that portrayed consumers rather than citizens, and to words associated with materialism (e.g. status, money, buy, asset, and expensive), experienced immediate temporary increases in anxiety, depression, and materialistic aspirations. They also became more selfish and competitive, were less inclined to join in on demanding social activities, and had an overall reduced sense of social responsibility.

Now, you better believe that advertisement agencies are well aware of these effects. Which means that the vast majority of ads you see or read or hear are designed to prime you into a materialistic frame of mind so that you buy their stuff.

In today’s world, we are literally bombarded with materialism-inducing messages 24/7.

So, what can you do about it?

Simple. You need to improve the information you (consciously or unconsciously) consume. Reduce your diet of materialism-inducing information and increase your diet of happiness/gratitude/compassion/inspiration-inducing information.

Stop watching so much TV. Skip the ads. Stop consuming the news. Delete your news apps. Use the pocket app to read articles instead. Install adblockers. Read books.

6. Invest In Social Relationships

Materialistic people tend to overvalue money and possessions while undervaluing social relationships.

If your main concern is to get rich and famous as fast as possible, it only makes sense that you have less time for social relationships.

This can become problematic because research has shown that social isolation and materialism go hand in hand: isolation fosters materialism and materialism fosters isolation.

This can lead to a vicious cycle. As you value materialistic possessions more and more, you begin to spend less and less time with friends and family. As you spend less time with friends and family, you become more socially isolated, and thus even more materialistic. And so on…

Now look, I am not saying that you shouldn’t spend time working on your business or your own personal development or engaging in hobbies. The point here is that you need to find a balance. Yes, take time for your own stuff, but also make sure you’re not neglecting your social relationships along the way.

7. Realize That Experiences Are Much More Valuable Than Stuff

Take a moment to think about the last few weeks and months of your life. Looking back at that period, what do you remember? What was important to you?

Chances are you remember your trip to Polynesia with your friends, the time you spent with your family, the big dinner party your friend Martha threw, the birthday of your child, the kite surfing you did last weekend, or whatever other awesome shit you’ve experienced.

The point is, what’s meaningful to us are experiences, not possessions. You won’t be on your deathbed remembering how much fun you and your Ferrari had. You won’t remember all the good times you spent with your fancy plasma TV.

You’ll remember experiences and people. That’s what ultimately matters.

And the research agrees, showing for example that spending money on experiences makes us much happier than spending it on goods. Richard Wiseman, a bestselling author and famous psychologist, confirms it in his book 59 Seconds:

“The results from both studies clearly indicated that in terms of short- and long-term happiness, buying experiences made people feel better than buying products.”

If you want to be less materialistic, start spending your money on experiences.

Go on holidays with your family. Learn a new language. Go mountain climbing with friends. Go to a Hockey game. Take a trip to the Rocky Mountains. Invest in a personal trainer. Hire a Yoga teacher. Join a cooking class.

Conclusion

Materialism is dangerous to our health and well-being. It has been shown to deplete our happiness, threaten our relationships, and render us less friendly, likable, and empathetic, while simultaneously making us more anxious, depressed, and selfish.

Modern society literally bombards us with materialism-inducing messages and endless celebrations and glorifications of the rich, handsome, and famous in ads, TV series, news, and other media.

If we want to become truly happy and fulfilled, we need to counterbalance society’s conditioning and find ways of overcoming materialism.

This article has given you many specific ways of doing that. For your convenience, I’m listing some of the most practical ones again here:

  • Find out your intrinsic values. Ask yourself, “Who are you at your best?” “Which 3 words best describe you?”
  • Make decisions according to your values.
  • Write down three to five things you’re grateful for every day (gratitude journaling)
  • Write down three things that went well today and why they went well (what-went-well exercise)
  • Read books instead of ads-filled magazines or newspapers
  • Stop consuming the news altogether
  • Watch less TV
  • Find a balance between your social life and your career, hobbies, and personal growth
  • Spend your money on experiences instead of goods

Ultimately, it’s all about making the shift from chasing to enjoying, from thinking to experiencing, from getting to giving, from desiring to appreciating, from external to internal, from having to being.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know your thoughts on the topic in the comments below.

More on the science of happiness and well-being:

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Nils Salzgeber

Recovering online gaming addict. Recovering procrastinator. Recovering perfectionist. Recovering heroin addict (ok, this one's not true!). Meditator. Arsenal FC Fan.

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