Are you a materialistic person? Is there anyone who use the material and physical goods, such as money, luxury items, car, property and not feel happy? These physical goods can be anything, including what seems like daily necessities such as a mobile phone, camera,mp3 player, and clothes.
A materialistic person is vested in owning material possessions and equates them to happiness. This is especially so if the ownership of possessions is motivated by emotional reasons (such as to look better, to feel better, to convey a status symbol) rather than functional reasons (to improve productivity, to communicate with others).
Our Unhappy Opulent Society
Materialism has become a trend in our society. Just look at the constant growing fixation on earning more money and owning material goods. At the same time, we are now materially better off than we have been, looking at our all-time high consumption of mobile phones, computers, and cars. Based on that, you would think everyone is happier today than ever. But, are we? Apparently, it’s not so.
I had first read about this during a marketing class in college. At that time, I thought the claim was ridiculous. I used to be quite materialistic then. By materialistic, I don’t mean hungering for branded goods like Gucci, Prada, etc. I never cared for such stuff but was more focused on buying things that I want more than the needs like new clothes, shoes, watch, etc which is materialism in itself.
As a teen, I was frequently shopping with friends and checking out the latest fashion trends. Having grown up in a metropolitan city, I aspired to earn more money and get material goods such as a convertible and a large property. After all, I was taught by teachers, schools, media, etc. that they were the most important goals to work for. When you live in a city with extravagant shopping malls everywhere and billboards of fancy clothes, food, and things to buy, these become the things you aim for by diffusion.
This was the same for those around me. Everyone around me aspired to earn more money and own material possessions like new clothes, more makeup, brand new car, etc. as we believed they would improve our lives. This was further reinforced by my personal experience — as a teen, I would feel happy when I got a material item I had been yearning for, and this was so for my friends too. Having more money meant having the means to get the things that I wanted. Having more money meant being better off than if I had less money.
The Illusion of Material Possessions
After I started living more consciously, I began to question the role material goods play in our lives.
For example, I used to feel great gratification whenever I acquired a material possession I had been longing for. However, this gratification was usually fleeting. It was a matter of time before I would look at the same thing and not get that same reaction. This time would range from a day to a year, but usually shorter than longer. I never thought much about this and just continued acquiring more things to feel happy. I just thought it was normal; society is evolving, my needs are changing, I’m earning more money, and hence I have higher expectations to keep up with.
However, the act of acquiring more became a cycle, to the point where I couldn’t help but notice something was amiss. It felt strange. If these material possessions supposedly make me happy, why do I have to keep getting more to be happy?
After much reflection, I imagine that materialism was a budding problem back a few years ago, but it has evolved into a full-scale phenomenon today. It is merely a materialistic act that averts people from becoming happy. In fact, materialism causes people to be unhappier in the long run.
Material Possessions: Artificial Symbols of Happiness
When you probe deep into our desire for material possessions, you will find many false beliefs. We look upon material possessions as a bridge to our ideal lives, to increase our happiness, to improve our life satisfaction, to boost our confidence, to feel more attractive, and so on. We see material goods to improve our quality of life. It seems our problems will disappear or be reduced with these material goods. Material possessions have turned into symbols of hope and joy. However, these symbols are no more than just artificial creations by people.
Marketing role on Materialism
Advertising has a large role to play. As someone with a Marketing background, I’m in a good position to speak about this. Marketers invest billions a year in ads which create these linkages in our mind.
So, how do marketers do it? First, they use market studies to identify dissatisfaction which can be low self-esteem, loneliness, dissatisfaction with work, unhappiness in life, etc. They also create an image of your aspirations — love, happiness, acceptance, self-worth, and more. They design marketing strategies that link their products to this ideal image. Whether this is true or not is something to be challenged.
Ask the average modern person what he/she thinks about Nike, and you will get adjectives like “just do it,” “freedom,” “liberty,” and “empowerment.” Or if you ask someone what he/she thinks about Apple, and we are likely to hear things like “being different,” “cool,” and “stylish.” Would people have this association if they were never exposed to these brands or their marketing? For example, ask someone from a tribe in Uganda, who has never seen modern advertisements — would they have such thoughts about these brands? Most definitely not.
As people get exposed to these marketing stimuli, the product begins to represent a certain image in their minds. People with aspirations similar to the product’s image desire to own it. These people work hard to acquire these possessions because owning them makes them feel like they are working on their problems. When they eventually acquire the possession, they feel happy, albeit briefly.
Materialism Breeds Discontentment
While all these are happening, your issues never get addressed. They remain there, untouched. While you strive to buy material possessions to be happy, it keeps you from working on your inner issues.
This is why materialism breeds discontentment. Materialism prevents you from addressing issues that will lead to real happiness. When you are materialistic, you base your satisfaction on material possessions. However, physical goods only act as a temporary placeholder to cover up your gaps. They are impermanent and external. They are not who you are.
While the physical goods will change and be discarded over time, you don’t. You are the constant that remains. The issues will be there until you address them. Instead of looking outward at material goods, you need to address these issues from within.
Breaking Out Of Materialism
By hinging on material possessions to be happy, you are stuck in the loop of materialism. It’s tricky because you get a false sense of joy when you get something new or get more wealth, especially if your reason for acquiring it is for emotional than functional reasons. This false sense of joy reinforces your desire to get more of it. It becomes a form of subconscious conditioning, where the positive reinforcement you get from the initial purchase triggers you to continue the behavior to get more of the “reward.” Material possessions become your go-to solution to solve dissatisfaction and life problems. It turns out to be an addiction.
By stepping out of their belief system and examining the notion that material goods bring, happiness is the only way that materialistic people can break the cycle. This can happen when someone keeps getting material possessions to be happy, only to notice that there’s no endpoint. Your purchase of goods and wealth will completely depend on your mood. Despite all the things you acquire, your feelings of dissatisfaction are always there, never going away. This dissatisfaction stays until you put a stop and decide that enough is enough.
Achieve Happiness Without Material Possessions
I’m no longer interested in shopping. Whenever I pass by shopping malls with friends, I don’t have an urge to buy stuff. On the rare occasion when I do buy something, my gratification is never the same as in the past. I mainly buy things for the functional value, not for the emotional or self-imagined value. I buy a new piece of clothing because I really need it, not to add to a collection of barely worn clothes, same for shoes, etc. I have given away most of the stuff I don’t wear (use) and I barely buy new stuff now.
These days, my relationship with material goods and money is totally different when compared to the past. This is liberating because I no longer base my happiness on my possessions. Whether my bank account has a lot or a little money, it doesn’t change the way I feel about myself. Whether I’m wearing fancy or traditional or simple clothes, it doesn’t change how I feel about myself. Regardless of what I wear or what I have, it doesn’t affect how I feel.
Probe into your materialistic tendencies
- Are there any material possessions you aspire to have to be happy?
- Why do you need them to be happy? What emotional benefits do you hope to get out of it? Each emotional benefit represents a certain gap in you. For example, if you want to buy something to be more confident, it means that deep down, you don’t feel as confident as you would without it. If you want to buy something to feel more attractive, it means you don’t feel as attractive without it.
- Instead of jumping to get that material possession, think about how to resolve this dissatisfaction from within. What can you do to resolve this dissatisfaction without material possessions? How can you attain happiness without material possessions?
Don’t look toward material possessions as your source of happiness, because you will hit a dead end with this path. Material possessions are just a temporary ornament in life. Instead, work on achieving happiness from within, independent of material goods and wealth. That’s where you will find an unwavering source of happiness and contentment. 🙂