Materialism and the desire to flaunt off material things have become a significant part of today’s society. We see influencers all over social media who are promoting luxury products or services and telling their audience, “regardless of all the privileges I have, it isn’t enough.”
People all around us spend frivolously on unnecessary things–from leasing ultra-high-end cars to undergoing unnecessary cosmetic surgery, wearing designer shoes and clothing, or sporting a Luis Viton purse or fancy Rolex watch. These are based on a flawed value system that rewards a perception of wealth and possessions as increasing social standing. However, it is simply incongruent to try and impress somebody and at the same time be warmly connected with them.
Perhaps I am just casting my biases. But a large body of psychological research supports these preconceptions. It defines the psychology of materialism as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project.” The research implies that materialism, a trait that can plague both the poor and rich, is self-detrimental and socially destructive. It shatters the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it.
There is nothing wrong with wanting the best luxuries in life. To some degree, a lot of us partake in consumer culture and value tangible possessions, and that’s perfectly fine. But, they should never be what you orient your life’s goals around and be your driving force. Materialism is a slippery and desperate path that leads to apathy, hopelessness, anxiety, and depression, ushering in negative impacts on well-being, relationships, and overall quality of life.
And, I know this first hand because I was living this materialistic and unfulfilled life. I told myself that tangible things were my rewards for hard work. So, I purchased large homes. I had five cars and ATVs in the garage, an extensive wine and bourbon collection, designer clothing, and more watches, toys, and gadgets than I knew what to do with. I remember spending a significant portion of a family vacation in Paris, France helping my ex-wife find the designer purse she could show off to her friends when she returned.
It was entirely out of control. I was living the lie that our measure of success is determined by the size of our salaries and the quality and price of the material goods we can buy. I was wearing a mask projecting who I thought society wanted me to be instead of being authentically me. I experienced numbness, apathy, depression, and anxiety. It caused me to lose my passion and focus on serving others and positively impacting society. I was playing small.
Why did this happen to me, and why is this psychology of materialism plaguing so much of society?
The Psychology of Materialism
I learned through that experience that playing small is the sport that consumes the majority of people in the world and that it goes hand in hand with materialism. It is an illusion that is destroying lives. When we align our lives around materialism, we place wealth over substance, earnings over relationships, popularity over virtue, the hustle culture over family, and ego over serving others.
When people base their value system on materialistic things, they center their self-worth and self-esteem on rewards and the praise of others. It is called the endowment effect in behavioral economics and is the belief that when things become ours, they become more valuable to us than their value to other people. We start thinking about materialistic objects as an extension of our identity and create an expectation that we’ll achieve some level of satisfaction possessing them.
This materialistic value system is causing us to live in a world where so many people become hardened and lose access to who they truly are. We put off living trying to be someone we are not because of what the damaged world tells us we should be.
In an American Psychological Association article, David G. Myers, the author of The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty, wrote, “Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology.”
Most of us have this intrinsic desire to be happy and feel that materialistic things (cars, jewelry, designer clothing) represent the output of our hard work. But, our desire for tangible goods and wealth isn’t driven by adversity but by our own inner discontentment. We are becoming more convinced that we can buy our way to happiness and that acquiring material goods will lead to fulfillment and well-being.
Is there any need for you to purchase that luxury vehicle, or is the one you have enough for your needs?
When your closet is already packed, do you have to buy another purse, watch, or pair of Prada or Dolce & Gabbana shoes?
We become obsessed with comparing, accumulating, and acquiring instead of creating, helping, and adventuring. When you have more, you spend more, and between all that, you forget the difference between want and need.
Why do so many people fall prey to this?
One theory that answers this question is based on the pioneering work of Kurt Lewin and his collaborators R.A. Wicklund and P.M. Gollwitzer. It’s called symbolic self-completion and refers to having or seeking social symbols of achievement regarding a goal meaningful to one’s self-identity.
The theory suggests that if an individual engages in completing a self-defining goal, such as achieving a role like becoming a lawyer or an attribute like intellect, that individual will seek symbols of completeness, socially recognized indicators that one has achieved that goal. The symbolic self-completion theory also suggests that this goal striving behavior can help explain the desire for cosmetic surgery, impulsive shopping, and the need for more tangible possessions.
The theory and research reveal that those who achieve an important domain yet feel inadequate may be boastful, less inclined to admit mistakes, and more likely to display degrees and awards. And, according to Australian research from the 1990s, type-A behaviors, including aggression and competitiveness, share common characteristics with materialist values and a possession-based definition of success.
What is Influencing this Trap of Materialism?
Social media plays a significant role in making people victims of the desire to place their worth on materialistic things. Brands make products and advertise them in such a way that convinces you into thinking that you can’t live without them. Things keep piling up, and you find yourself accustomed to them.
According to a survey by The Harwood Group, 86 percent of respondents said that “today’s youth are too focused on buying and consuming things,” and 58 percent describe most American children as “very materialistic.” Maybe because an average American is wealthier than ninety-nine percent of the global population and the Millennials and Gen Zers grew up living with entitlement.
Significant parts of the global population are convinced that wealth leads to happiness, and social media has a lot to do with this growing belief. According to Psychologists Ava Green and Kathy Charles, “People higher in entitlement may also seek prestige. Broadly, more entitled people pursue chronic goals to construct and defend their positive self-image. These goals could be fulfilled by receiving the deferral, respect, and admiration from others that comes with prestige.”
Money is essential; it can most certainly help you achieve your goals, make your future, and make your life easier. But at the end of the day, just having wealth doesn’t guarantee your fulfillment and happiness. The chase after the tangible can make you lose your identity, morals, and perspective. These negative aspects keep stacking until you are completely lost and feel the numbness, depression, helplessness, and ego plaguing so many in society today.
I don’t mean that you should completely ignore the tangibles in life. But you don’t have to sell your soul for them.
The Importance of Intangible Things
It is a surefire path to misery and mediocrity when you evaluate yourself with what you have instead of who you are. Think of it this way, whatever you earned, are earning, and will earn doesn’t belong to you. You came to this world empty-handed, and you are to leave empty-handed. Your belongings and your body will be recycled and returned to nature. So, what do you want to be remembered for? The wealth you built up or the impact you made on others and society.
In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser writes, “materialism derives from a motivational system focused on rewards and praise; autonomy and self-expression derive from a motivational system concerned with the expression of interest, enjoyment, and challenge, and doing things for their own sake.“
It is vital to set goals and achievements in life, but how you earn them matters. Is sacrificing your values, self-esteem, self-confidence, faith, and reputation worth achieving your materialistic goals? It essentially devotes your soul, mind, passion, and heart to gaining tangible items versus achieving self-mastery and positively impacting the world.
That is why you need to take the route filled with intangible things towards fulfilling your goals.
As W. Clement Stone said, “Your most precious, valued possessions and your greatest powers are invisible and intangible. No one can take them. You, and you alone, can give them. You will receive abundance for your giving.”
How You Can Apply This To Your Life
What is something you do to be more focused on the intangibles? Find out if you buy all the unnecessary things because you are insecure and use your possessions to impress others, or is it something else.
When you always want to have better than you own, you are left with dissatisfaction and get robbed of your inner peace. It’s like you are on the side of a mountain, always looking up and envying who and what is up there at the top. Regardless of the consequences and compromises, you do all it takes to get up there to be on that peak. And when you are there, you look further up and say, “I have to go higher.”
Wanting to be the most privileged and conform to what this world is conditioning you to be is like climbing an endless ladder. It’s there, waiting for you to lose your balance and fall. When you compromise your relationships, friendships, morals, values, and true identity, you lose your balance in life and fail to find fulfillment.
I urge you to stop looking outwardly for fulfillment and start looking inwardly. Be grateful for what you have and the incredible superpowers you possess. See the smiles on the faces of those who have solid self-identities and ask yourself why they are happy? The answer is straightforward, they are more focused on the intangible aspects of life and are satisfied with what they are and what they have.
That is what I call true success.
As Albert Schweitzer said, “success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful”.
Life starts to lose meaning when we care about what we want more than what we need and who we can help.
Additionally, the main problem that society faces today is the planet’s future. While there are many causes of climate change, a major one is the relentless pursuit and overconsumption of tangible things that we don’t really need.
What changes will you make today to take back your life and positively impact others?
The Passion Struck podcast is helping men and women learn how to live intentionally and unlock a NO REGRETS life. Listen to the Passion Struck Podcast anywhere you listen to podcasts online. For more information, if you are in a toxic relationship, click here.