“Everything we own must fit into our car” – Kelly
Materialism can potentially be a reason for why you are currently feeling anxious or unhappy. But you might not even know it yet. That’s why I have done some asking around and want to share multiple examples of materialism that are relatable, actionable and real. Like Kelly, who sold 90% of her belongings and is now living out of a car.
Why is materialism is keeping you from being happier? Because once you fix your anxiety with buying extra stuff, you enter a dangerous cycle:
- You buy something impulsively
- You experience a “dopamine fix” during which you are briefly happier
- That short-term happiness starts to stagnate and then declines again
- This decline in happiness fuels your deprivation and anxiety for more materialistic purchases
- Rinse and repeat
While the first example of Kelly is a rather extreme example of countering materialism, this article contains plenty of inspiring ways to fight materialism that you can learn from. In the end, it’s up to you to decide how much possessions you need and want, and at what are you happy with what you already have. I want to show you how to get to that happy place.
- Materialism definition
- Examples of materialism
- How to be less materialistic
- Examples of materialistic items
- How materialism does not result in sustainable happiness
- Closing words
A significant part of your happiness is a result of your personal outlook. Being aware of your own emotions and mindset is a vital step towards happiness. This is covered in-depth in the section Internal Happiness in the biggest guide on how to be happy available online.
Materialism is defined in many ways. The definition of materialism that I want to cover in this article is the seemingly growing tendency towards products over experiences and spiritual values.
Yes, for those of us who aren’t yet familiar with the concept of materialism, here’s how Google defines it:
Materiarlism definition: a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.
So what is the issue here? Why am I writing this article about examples of materialism and why you need to fight it or else you’ll never be happy?!
Though it’s not this extreme, materialism is one of the reasons why people might be relatively unhappy. In short, this is because humans are very good at adapting to new things quickly. This is part of the hedonic treadmill that plays a huge role in what happiness really means for us. (more on that later)
When we upgrade our smartphone to the latest model, with thrice as much RAM and quadruple the number of selfie cameras, then we are unfortunately very quick to adapt to that new level of luxury. Therefore, this level of materialism doesn’t result in sustainable happiness.
In contrast, spending that same amount of money on experiences and spiritual values allows us to relive these moments after they have passed. Going on an amazing road trip or buying a subscription to the local zoo has more upside potential for our happiness because we can relive these experiences after they have passed.
What a stupid example of materialism!
If this is what you’re thinking right now, then allow me to share some better, actual examples of materialism with you.
Examples of materialism
A concept such as materialism can be difficult to understand without any specific and actual examples. I wondered how to get real-life examples of how materialism can be encountered in today’s world and thought “why not ask others?”.
Therefore, I’ve asked four others to share their stories of how materialism has affected their happiness and what they’ve done to counter it.
“Materialism offers a false promise of renewal”
I personally discovered the “rabbit hole” of materialism when I finished graduate school, had the highest-paying job I had ever had in my life and a supportive, successful husband after living paycheck to paycheck all of my adult life.
This is the story of Jude. I think this is a very relatable example of how materialism can slowly creep into your life without being aware of it.
Jude works as a therapist and trainer at Lifestage which designs and implements creative training for personal and professional development. Her story continues:
I had owed so much in student loans after working my way through school that I still lived paycheck to paycheck well into my professional life. It was when I was able to shop without guilt or worry that I began to notice that buying new clothes, shoes, or make-up became an almost compulsive response to anxiety and self-doubt. I had entered into a previously unavailable realm of material comfort, only to stumble upon a dry well of “want” that rose up in consciousness when I felt inadequate, pressured, or stressed, which was fairly often with new roles and responsibilities.
Materialism offers a false promise of renewal. It is a mindset that looks for the shiny new thing to take the focus off of authentic emotional struggle, but of course no material thing actually resolves the struggle. In my work as a therapist and trainer who facilitates the process of change and growth, I learn more all the time about what drives this nagging sense of “want” and have discovered some pathways for overcoming it.
The most powerful and enduring approach for getting out of the cycle of materialism is to tap into our creative capacity. The creative act, and the skills we need to develop in order to gain satisfaction in our attempts to create, is linked to the same “reward” chemistry in the brain that is triggered by acquiring new things. Its the combination of novelty and effort that makes creative activity so effective at countering materialism. What we gain from learning to paint, tell stories, play guitar, improvise or any other creative act is an internal sense of mastery that can translate into real life creative confidence.
Instead of buying something new, do something new. Try doing the same old thing in a new way. Learn a skill you are interested in but scares you. Improvisation is the most immediate of these and works to reboot our sense of how to manage uncertainty and redirect fear to fun.
I think this example shows how easy it is to fall victim to materialism. We buy new things in order to satisfy our short-term happiness and “material comfort”, while we’re unaware of the fact that we quickly adapt to this new level of comfort and long for more and more.
“Instead of buying something new, do something new.” This is beautiful advice that more people should hear.
Let’s continue to another example of materialism in a real-life scenario.
“Is our worth determined by what we have?”
From the moment we are born, it seems that we are conditioned to want and have things. Well-meaning parents (and I have been one of them) shower their off spring with toys, clothes, and food, sending the message that “you are special” and “you deserve the best” which is true – we are all special and we do deserve the best, but is our specialness found in things? Is our worth determined by what we have?
This story of materialism comes from Hope Anderson. She raises a very good point here, in that materialism is something that we grow up with. This is not a bad thing by default but might result in a later issue where our happiness is dependent on a constant tendency to acquire new and better things.
Her story continues:
Personally, I think the best gift we have given our children is the gift of less. This wasn’t by choice. My husband and I worked as public servants and our income was small. We found enjoyment in simple things – walks in the woods, homemade gifts, using the library. Of course there was the occasional treat – horseback lessons or the special doll – but they were few and far between, thus all the more appreciated.
Today, our children are grown. They have put themselves through college and found satisfying careers. My husband and I, living on a fixed income, continue to enjoy the simple things – a cozy fire on a winter day, a beautiful sunset, good music, each other. We don’t need three weeks in the Far East to feel fulfilled. If I have need for the Far East, I read something by the Dalai Lama who reminds me that there is nothing wrong with having things as long as they don’t obscure your appreciation for the moment at hand.
So, is our worth determined by what we have?
This is another powerful example of how materialism is not a bad thing by default. But it must be clear that long-term happiness is usually not a result of buying and upgrading to new things. Long-term happiness is found by appreciating the things in life that you already have.
Let’s discuss a more extreme example of how materialism can be dealt with in today’s world.
“Everything we own must fit into our car”
I moved three times in four years. With each move, there were boxes that I never unpacked. They sat in a storage until it was time for me to pack and move again. That was a huge red flag to me that I had a problem with materialism. If I hadn’t used something in four years, so much to the point that I even forgot I had this stuff, why on earth would I keep lugging it around with me for the rest of my life?
Luckily, I’ve personally never moved three times in fours years. I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be. Especially when you’re constantly carrying around stuff that you have no need for. This is the story of Kelly, who believes in minimalism and writes about it on Genesis Potentia.
She shares how she experienced a rather extreme example of materialism.
Upon my move from Illinois to North Carolina in August 2014 for a professional sabbatical, I decided to take a radical approach. I rented a furnished apartment and then proceeded to sell, donate, give away, or trash 90% of my belongings. I gave it all away with such abandon that one of my colleagues at work jokingly asked if I was terminally ill. The funny thing about giving up materialism is that once you get started, you don’t ever want to stop.
Nearly five years later, I remain delightfully free of my attachments to stuff. I enjoyed my sabbatical so much, I quit my job as an associate professor the following academic year. My husband and I now travel North America as professional pet and housesitters. We no longer have a permanent residence, which means everything we own must fit into our car as we travel from housesitting job to housesitting job. I have never been healthier, happier, or more satisfied with my life.
Alright, maybe this example is a little less relatable. I don’t expect you to fight materialism by selling most of your belongings and living such a wild and adventurous life.
But I do want you to notice how fighting materialism has helped Kelly become healthier and happier than she’s ever been.
She has found what works for her, and that is truly inspiring. Long-term happiness is generally not found in acquiring more stuff. Especially not if you constantly have to carry it around the country with you. Instead, Kelly has found that happiness can be found in little things that have nothing to do with owning expensive possessions.
And I hope you understand this. Happiness has a different meaning for everybody in the world. What makes Kelly happy doesn’t necessarily have to make you happy as well. But like Kelly, you have to try and find out exactly how to lead your happiest life.
“Think about purchases for 3-7 days before taking the leap”
As a yoga teacher, I practice the principle of Aparigraha, or “non-grasping.” This encourages me to only acquire what I need and to be aware of when I am hoarding. It’s much easier said than done! I really have to check in with myself when I want something to examine if I am simply being materialistic.
Libby from Essential You Yoga has a nice and easy system in place that helps in the fight against materialism. Here’s how she does it:
One way that I do that is by giving myself space before making a purchase. I very rarely buy impulsively, choosing instead to think about purchases for 3-7 days before taking the leap. The same rule applies to my four year old, who would easily be buried under a pile of toys if my family had their druthers. I’ve asked my family to kindly refrain from giving her new toys, and instead to gift us with experiences, such as memberships to local attractions or simply spend time teaching her something new.
The ultimate result is that we value the items we do have in our lives, and spend more time outside of the house experiencing the world together. It places less stress on my wallet, and offers us the chance to look within instead of outside of ourselves for our happiness.
This is one of the simplest things you can do to counter materialism:
Whenever you want something, do the following things:
- Wait a week
- If you still want it in a week, check your budget
- If you have the budget, then you’re probably good to go
This last example immediately brings me to the next logical topic in this article:
How to be less materialistic
From our examples, we’ve learned quite a bit of actionable advice already:
- Wait a week before purchasing anything. If you still want it after the week has passed, then you’re good to go
- Monitor your spending, so you’re aware of how different purchases influence your financial situation
- Be grateful for what you already have
- Realize that experiences are more correlated to long-term happiness than possessions are
- Sell or give away stuff that has no use (especially when you forgot about its existence!)
- Instead of buying something new, do something new instead
Again, it’s important to know that materialism is not a bad thing by default.
There is nothing wrong with having things, as long as these things don’t obscure your appreciation for the moment at hand or the things you already have.
Examples of materialistic items
Just as I was researching this article, I thought of the following question: “At what point should a person consider the topic of materialism?”
In other words, which items are most often purchased without any real use by people who are materialistic? So I went back online to research some examples of which items best fit the label “materialistic”. Here’s what I’ve found:
- The latest smartphone model
- Bigger house/apartment
- A newer car (because it already has 50 miles on it!)
- Flying Business Blass instead of Economy
- Eating out instead of cooking your own dinner
- Paying for TV channels you hardly ever watch (for that one time you want to watch Game of Thrones)
- An expensive rental car for when you’re on holiday
- Purchasing a vacation home or a timeshare
- Buying a boat
- Buying expensive sports gear when you’re only just starting out (because I at least want to look good)
- A way too expensive engagement ring
- The latest clothes from the top-brands (because my old clothes are “really” worn out)
- New pieces of furniture (because you’ve had the same living room layout for 2 years already!)
* I’ve added some sentiment within brackets to some examples of materialistic items, which you may or may not recognize. 😉
If you’re reading this right now while also planning on purchasing any of these items, then I want you to really consider the following question:
Is my happiness REALLY going to increase in the long term after buying this new thing?
This is one of the most important questions when dealing with materialism, which brings me to the final point of this article:
How materialism does not result in sustainable happiness
As discussed in an earlier example in this article, humans are quick to adapt. This is both good and bad.
- It’s good because we can better deal with negative events in our life this way.
- It’s bad because we quickly adapt to that $5,000 purchase and consider it the “new normal”
This is called hedonic adaptation.
I explained it with the following example in my essay about “What Is Happiness?”
Think of a big salary bump. You receive a raise of 50%! Congratulations, you now have money to spend on all kinds of things that make you and your family happy! Will that happiness sustain into the future? Unfortunately not. Instead of appreciating the luxury of your raise, you will grow accustomed to this extra money and will slowly take it for granted.
This hedonic adaptation fuels a vicious cycle that a lot of people fall victim of:
- We buy something impulsively
- We experience a “dopamine fix” during which we are briefly happier
- That short-term happiness starts to stagnate and then declines again
- This decline in happiness fuels our deprivation and anxiety for more materialistic purchases
- Rinse and repeat
Do you see how this cycle can quickly spiral out of control?
It’s because these skills can help you break these cycles.
After all, you are responsible for your own happiness. Only you can steer your life in a direction that fits you perfectly. Just like Kelly did in our previous example by selling 90% of her stuff. She became aware of what made her happy and broke the cycle of materialism and made some drastic changes.
You can only truly make these drastic changes in your life if you are aware of what happiness means to you on a personal level.
It’s why I’ve been tracking my happiness for over 5 years now. I believe that you can be happier. You just have to find out how to be happier.
I hope that you now know how materialism can negatively affect your life. These examples have shown me how there are different ways to recognize and fight this potentially bad habit.
Now, I want to hear from you!
Do you want to add more typical examples of materialistic things? Do you have a much better example of how you countered materialism? Do you disagree with something I said in this article?
I’d love to hear more from you in the comments!
Founder of Tracking Happiness and lives in the Netherlands. Ran 5 marathons, with one of them in under 4 hours (3:59:58 to be exact). Data junkie and happiness tracker for over 6 years.