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4 Examples of Materialism (and Why It's Making You Unhappy)


Why is materialism keeping you from being happier? Because once you fix your anxiety by 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 craving for more materialistic purchases.
  • Rinse and repeat.

This article contains ways to fight materialism based on real examples. It's up to you to decide how many possessions you need and want. At what are you happy with what you already have? This article will show you how to get to that happy place.

Materialism definition

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.

For those of us who aren't yet familiar with the concept of materialism, here's how Google defines it:

Materialism definition: a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.

How materialism keeps you from being happier

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.

When we upgrade our smartphone to the latest model, with twice 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.

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Examples of materialism

A concept such as materialism can be difficult to understand without any specific and actual examples.

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. 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.

"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 necessarily bad but might result in a later issue where our happiness is dependent on a constant tendency to acquire newer 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.

"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?

This is the story of Kelly, who believes in minimalism and writes about it at 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.

This example may not be as relatable as the others, but still, Kelly has found what works for her, and that is truly inspiring.

Long-term happiness is 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 the little things that have nothing to do with owning expensive possessions.

"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.

6 tips to be less materialistic

From our examples, here are 6 tips to help you overcome materialism:

  • 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 thankful 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 or the things you already have.

Examples of materialistic items

As I was researching this article, I wondered which items are most often purchased by people who are materialistic. Here's what I've found:

Examples of materialistic items are:

  • The latest smartphone model.
  • Bigger house/apartment.
  • A newer car.
  • Flying Business Blass instead of Economy.
  • Eating out instead of cooking your own dinner.
  • Paying for TV channels/subscriptions you hardly ever watch.
  • 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.
  • An engagement ring that's way too expensive.
  • The latest clothes from top brands.
  • New pieces of furniture (because you've had the same living room layout for 2 years already!)
  • Can you think of more? Let me know in the comments below!

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 your happiness really going to increase in the long term when you buy 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.

Material purchases do not lead to sustainable happiness

As discussed before, 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.
  • It's bad because we quickly adapt to that $5,000 purchase and consider it the "new normal"

This is called hedonic adaptation.

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 craving for more materialistic purchases.
  • Rinse and repeat.

Do you see how this cycle can quickly spiral out of control?

After everything's said and done, you are responsible for your own happiness.

Only you can steer your life in a direction that leads to long-term happiness.

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Wrapping up

Owning the latest smartphone or a new car might feel cool for a while, but the benefits quickly wear off. That's why it's important to realize that materialism does not lead to long-term happiness. I hope that these examples have shown you how there are different ways to recognize and fight the materialism spiral of endless purchases.

Now, I want to hear from you! Do you want to share a typical example of materialistic purchases? Do you disagree with something I said in this article? I'd love to hear more from you in the comments below!

Hugo
Founder of Tracking Happiness

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 7 years.

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