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Beware of Materialistic Values by Mariano Rojas

Many contemporary societies foster the idea that fame, power and money constitute the essential ingredients of a happy life. I recently saw a movie, untitled “The Pursuit of Happiness”, which emphasized the association between money –a lot of money- and happiness. Wearing fashionable clothes and expensive jewelry, driving powerful and opulent cars, owning a luxurious house, being popular among friends, classmates and colleagues, having authority over other people, command over resources, and so on, are systematically associated with a life of success; which is understood as the life people ought to pursue in order to be happy.

The role model played by heroes in ancient civilizations is nowadays played by celebrities. TV stations broadcast programs that endorse the life of the rich and famous as a life which everybody ought to pursue. Consumerism tells us that having is a necessary and sufficient condition for being. Hence, it is of no surprise that TV programs promoting the idea of becoming a millionaire capture people’s attention. Fame, power and money may even become attributes people value in the electoral process. Materialistic values are widely promoted in these contemporary societies. But, is it really true that these values do contribute to having a satisfying life? There are arguments and facts that tell as to beware of materialistic values.

Values are important because they set the standards people use for evaluating their life. In other words, values are associated with the experience of success as it is evaluated through achievements and failures in life. Values are also important because they define that which is worth pursuing and as a consequence, they influence people’s actions and social interactions.

The so-called Rochester Psychological School (Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, and Tim Kasser, among many) has studied the relationship between materialistic values and happiness in the United States. This School states that materialistic values are negatively related to people’s happiness; as a matter of fact, it states that these values do contribute to what some call ‘the dark side of the American dream’. In my Conceptual Referent Theory of Happiness I have also shown that people do use different frameworks (values) when evaluating if their life is going well or not and that, as expected, these frameworks do matter for happiness.

In this post I would like to share with readers some basic results about the relationship between materialistic values and life satisfaction on the basis of a database from Mexico. Recently, we asked 2000 Mexicans about what were the constituents of a good life. Interviewed people where provided with a list of possible constituents and were asked whether each item in the list was part of the good life. There were some items associated with materialistic values in the list; for example, 57 percent of people in the survey said that having a lot of money was part of the good life; 62 percent for having a job with power and authority; 60 percent for having nice and fashionable clothes; and 53 percent for being trendy (being ‘in’ instead of ‘out’).

People in the survey were also asked about their satisfaction with life; the response scale was from 1 to 7 (going from extremely unsatisfied to extremely satisfied). It is interesting to compare the life satisfaction of those who hold materialistic values with respect to those who do not hold materialistic values. The results from the study show that life satisfaction is clearly lower for those who hold materialistic values; for example, while mean life satisfaction is 4.81 for those saying that having nice and fashionable clothes are not part of the good life this figure is only 4.58 for those who consider nice and fashionable clothes as part of the good life. Similar results are observed for the other elements: 4.73 against 4.62 for ‘having a lot of money’, 4.74 against 4.63 for ‘having a job with power and authority’, and 4.83 against 4.53 for ‘being trendy’. In all cases the differences are statistically significant.

Many reasons may explain the depressing impact of materialistic values on life satisfaction. People who hold materialistic values are more inclined to over-working and, in consequence, to under-relating and under-resting. There is a greater likelihood for people who hold materialistic values of entering the ‘rat race’ of status seeking based on ownership of positional goods (fashionable clothes, expensive cars, large houses, jewelry, and many durable goods which colleagues and friends can observe).

This status-seeking race is never a win-win race, since status is basically positional and not everybody can stand up at the top of the status pyramid. In consequence, people who enter this status-seeking race end up spending a lot –even beyond their possibilities if there is easy credit- and overworking in order to attain a better status. However, in this status-seeking race overspending and overworking is of little benefit when the rest of people in society are also doing it. In a generalized status-seeking race it happens that people are forced to run in order to remain in the same place. However, overworking and overspending may have negative side effects which depress life satisfaction, such as the deterioration of physical and mental health, a substantial reduction in the availability of free time, and under-relating (less quality time to spend with friends and family).

Furthermore, the status seeking race based on ownership and social comparison of material-goods makes people focus their attention on what they do not have –and which others do have- rather than on what they have. Rather than fully enjoying what they possess, people end up focusing their attention on what they lack, which is not a wise way to live a life of happiness. This issue has been elegantly raised by the theories of desire proposed by Plato and Spinoza. While Plato approached desire as the sense of lacking something, Spinoza approached desire as the power that allows us to enjoy what we have.

What thoughtful recommendations for pursuing a happy life are derived from this research? It is clearly important for people to be autonomous; this is, to have their own goals and to avoid the influence that social comparisons and advertising campaigns may have in raising and manipulating these goals. It is also important to desire as much as possible what we already have in order to enjoy it. It is also important to avoid entering the rat race of status seeking based on ownership of material goods. It is always a good advice to live a balanced life where we have time to spend with family, friends, colleagues and neighbors, as well as where we do also have enough free time to rest, to enjoy what we already have, and to pursue our own non-materialistic interests.

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Source: Dr. Jerrey Wagner's blog, "Whole life well being".


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