Materialism In Society And How We Can Overcome It

A common problem we all face is not having enough money. But when looked more closely. We can see that the real problem is not (only) our limited resources. The real problem we experience – or so I hope to convince you – is that we’ve unwittingly inherited a troubling understanding of how to use our limited resources. We use money not as a tool that can generate more money – e.g., invest. But as a way to obtain more possessions so we can prove to others our worthiness.

There’s no shame in being materialistic – wanting stuff. But it’s problematic when stuff is all you pursue.

No wonder why materialism in society is affecting how we operate.

These days. We can only be happy when we know for certainty that we have what others have.

Not because we need extra things. But because we crave extra attention.

After all, acquiring something new triggers a sequence of events:

  1. We get to share our shiny new possession.
  2. This invites eyeballs to our persona.
  3. Thus, the pleasant sensation of recognition goes through our veins.

Every time others are looking at us, this is feeding our appetite to feel accepted. We get a sense of belonging. We feel valued. And this aspect further enables a safe feeling of being part of a group.

But when you join a group that is purely driven by inciting envy in others – by unexhaustingly talking about what’s next on their shopping list so they can appear superior. How is this a good long-term relationship?

Your day-to-day life becomes an endless struggle to earn more so you can purchase more.

Collecting bread crumbs of joy.

But never being truly satisfied.

Not because the act of buying is not pleasantly stimulating the mind. But because there is always something new being produced and new to buy – a new line of clothes, new trendy boots, a new gadget that looks bizarrely unuseful but since others own it…

Outside might appear that we have it all. But inside we are saturated with despair.

If your goal with the money you earn is to get more stuff. I’d like to challenge your approach and hopefully lead you somewhere worthwhile.

In this post. I’m going to uncover the ugliness in our society. Our materialistic society.

What Is The Impact of Materialism On Our Society?

Apart from unstable finances and a cluttered home. The main impact materialism has on our society is the depressing feeling of never being good enough.

After all, every time you see others possessing things you don’t. A sensation of resentment grows inside of you both toward the individual for attaining this thing and toward yourself for not being capable of having it.

When this situation occurs. We usually respond by either purchasing what others have – which put us in greater debt. Or, we get eaten from our feelings until this thing is no longer fashionable.

But this is just part of the problem.

You also start to aim toward the wrong things – wrong values.

Instead of trying to build a stable home built upon honesty, generosity, and hard work. You knowingly or not transfer your urgers to obtain material possessions to your kids.

They become more interested in showcasing themselves as worthy citizens of the modern world – by sharing photos wearing luxurious clothes, standing beside pools, etc. But actually not being valuable – lack empathy, sense of purpose, autonomy.

When stuff is the guiding principle, a social image is projected where the person is supposedly unrealistically happy all the time while inside he’s fighting depression.

We focus not on what we have. But on what we could have.

This keeps us away from feeling joy from what’s currently in front of us. We are consumed by agony because we focus on imagining what can someday be in front of us.

And this is true not only for things. But for relationships also.

Eventually, with each year. Society becomes more focused on things rather than people.

Yes, you still need people. But not in a way you’d imagine.

People are not called community. People are not called friends.

We label them as an audience.

We talk about followers and subscribers. Words that exclude the human soul sitting behind the screen and only focus on the purchasing power of the mass.

No wonder we feel so alone in this crowded world.

And it’s not only me saying this as an observer of how humans tend to operate these days. There are numerous studies that confirm this statement – that materialistic goals are associated with decreased well-being.1

It’s no longer about building relationships – “How can I help you?” But about the monetizing relationships – “What can you give me?”

What Causes of Materialism?

On the surface level. We can say that materialism is caused by our open world.

You can easily see what others have these days. Just open your favorite browser and your social media and you see what others are doing.

Internally though, the problem is much more subtle.

It’s not only because we have 24/7 access to what our fellow humans do. But because of internal issues – feeling insecure and not receiving enough attention from others.

As Eric Berne writes in his book Games People Play: “Recognition-hunger is far more important than food-hunger.”

Being alive is far down the list of desired features than others acknowledging your presence.

And to get people to recognize you. These days, it’s way easier to purchase something than to build something.

Not only can we show a new scarf, a new handbag much more easily, but we cannot adequately present learning a new language.

Also, in the first case, the purchase of a new item requires only pushing a couple of buttons and money – money you don’t even need to have. While in the second case, it requires grit, disciple, hard work, and showing up every day.

Since we are primarily focused on getting immediate results, we prefer the former.

The moment we feel inadequate. When the spotlight is no longer on us. When others don’t seem to care. We immediately jump into the vortex of shops to escape the vulnerable feeling that we’re not good enough.

Instead of doing something worthwhile. We choose to spend a good amount of our time and money on things to persuade others that we are worthwhile.

That’s one of the main reasons we endlessly shop.

Can Materialism Be Good for Society?

It doesn’t seem to make sense to suggest that there might be such a thing as good materialism. After all, isn’t being dependent upon physical possessions plain bad, always?

In truth, the act of acquiring things does come with certain “goodies”.

I’ve identified 3 good things in materialism that are important for the person to understand:

Materialism To Feel Good

As noted above. Gettings things is the fastest way to get a sense that you matter.

This can be a shallow and selfish drive. But it remains an important component of our personalities.

When you work hard. Save. And eventually have enough money to purchase a new car, for example. This is direct evidence that you’re a capable person. Yes, it’s kind of feels sad to compare an individual to his purchasing powers. But the sensations we get from getting stuff are too big to be neglected.

Every time you feel incapable. You can look around and see what you already have. Thus, you can feel better.

In other words, what you have is kind of like a safety net. When you feel like a loser. You can bounce back and feel better by reminding yourself of everything that’s already in your possession – “Oh, I’ve created a beautiful home. I’m not a complete disappointment.”

Materialism to Support Our Identity

Material objects that support our desired identity give us the power to continue our journey.

Say you want to become a writer. Your internal motivation is a good start to take on the long journey of improving the words you type on a page. But the initial setback can quickly discourage you.

As religion endorses the purchases of icons and medallions so you can keep believing. Physical possessions like a fancy pen or a new desk where you exercise writing can be things that support your desire to become the person you want to be.

To a visitor, your new desk is simply a place you sit to do work. But on a psychological level, this purchase supports your desire to become a writer. Every time you see it. You get reminded that this is a tool that allows you to be the person you decided – a writer.

The more you increase the set of items that are related to being a writer. The closer you feel to becoming one. This is an important part of our inner evolution.2

Materialism Drives Innovation

From a practical perspective. It doesn’t make sense to start a website that publishes book summaries – as I do on this site. There are plenty of sites that synthesize the main topics of great books.

And yet, if there is only one place for book summaries, for clothes, only one brand of cars. This will mean that there are so few opportunities for creative work.

While shopping can be viewed as a prime evil. It can be viewed as a source that drives innovation.

The more we spent. The more we support the global economy. More goods are produced and more money is allocated for innovation.

Plus, if you happen to choose to support small businesses owners – not big monopolistic corporations. You will help more individuals do creative work.

Negative Effects of Materialism

Like everything else.

Balance is key.

Yes, as I just noted. There are good traits in materialism and consumption. But we are rarely in the middle ground.

Most commonly, we are throwing money around and sharing our new possession with the prime incentive to present ourselves are better than the rest.

Earning a decent salary may buy you some level of comfort. You will surely impress a certain group of people. And in the short term, you will certainly feel happy about yourself.

Materialism becomes problematic when we connect our happiness only to the act of purchasing.

When we buy something, our brain releases endorphins and dopamine. This improves our current state. But it quickly diminished with time.3

When the new pair of shoes are no longer a source of joy. Or at least no longer can keep us away from our problems. We are back in the virtual or physical store wanting to get more stuff.

The core question is this: What internal switch triggers an uncontrollable shopping spree?

What makes us waste our hard-earned cash on stuff?

Primarily, it’s our inability to cope with our deep emotions.

When we are bored. When we feel sad, not good enough, depressed. Or when we have problems in the office or our relationship is in a bad state. Instead of trying to fix the situation by communicating. We turn to the local mall to soothe our feelings.

After all. Getting a new laptop, toaster, or whatever, comes with certain benefits:

  • It’s fast.
  • It’s an act that doesn’t require special powers.
  • You can do it even if you don’t have the money.
  • A new thing can’t hurt your feelings. It can only signal to others how well you’re doing in life.

This internally translates that you only need money to feel good.

Since money can buy you things. And when things make you feel good. Mathematically speaking, it means that the more you earn, the happier you will feel.

So, what do you think happens?

Oh yes, we value money more than anything else. Because money equals things. And things equals recognition.

Is this really the case?

Not exactly.

If we turn to goods every time we are in a bad state. We’ll never create a stable relationship with the person we said yes to a while back. We’ll change relationships like we change clothes.

The greatest negative effect of materialism is that it powers this fantasy world where there are no limitations. Which, in turn, will focus you not on fortifying the single relationship that matters but on trying to impress the mass that in the long term doesn’t matter.

Let me explain…

Eventually, the relationship with your partner (or a small group of friends) will start to feel uneventful. Boring even. You start to see all the ways your partner is inevitably finite. This feels deeply disappointing compared with the unlimited joys consummation can bring – and here the word consummation is not only used in a sense of getting stuff.

After all, why should you spend another evening where you’ll have the same discussion about how your days went by when you can browse the infinite online catalogs that offer new excitements?

The answer seems obvious. That’s why it’s concerning.

When we start to focus on possessions. When they are our measurement for success. Other more important things seem unimportant.

As long as there are others who are liking how we appear – even though we don’t personally know them, they are just online avatars. It doesn’t matter if the one person who happens to be our lifetime roommate is feeling lonely while being near us.

And yet, if you think about when you are actually happy. Not temporarily satisfied. But joyful for hours. How often the answer is: “When I bought a new pair of shoes!” Or, “When I received 100 likes on my new photo!”

Usually, you’ll respond with something like: “When I was hiking with my best friends.” Or, “When I was working on a painting and I lost track of time.”

The question – if we want to feel happier for longer and get a sense of meaning in this seemingly meaningless world – then becomes: How can I schedule more experiences that bring me lasting joy instead of buying things that only come with fleeting sensations and push me to get even more things?

How to Overcome Materialism?

When you identify with the things you own. You naturally become obsessed with owning more.

You see yourself as this walking billboard. The more expensive things you put. The more expensive you feel. You start to think that others should respect you more because you are increasing your value.

But say that things are to be removed. Say for a moment that you have none of the possessions you have right now. If this happens, how can you identify yourself? How can you label yourself when you have nothing?

As Erich Fromm writes in his book To Have or To Be, “If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I?”

The answer will reveal something you know but avoid.

It’s not what you own. But what you do that matters.

  • Acquiring everything writing-related doesn’t make you a writer. Writing does.
  • Spending hours online sharing photos where you’re supposedly happy with your kids doesn’t make you a good parent. Spending time with your kids does.
  • Spending money on things and sharing these items with others doesn’t make you a valuable citizen. Doing valuable things without needing to tell others for others does.

With this in mind. Let’s see how we can overcome materialism:

Steps To Overcome Materialism:

First, prepare on a piece of paper a list of everything that you got to have.

Think about everything that you feel you need. All of the items that you think will supposedly make a difference in your life. Some of these things will probably be a new car, a new set of dining dishes, etc.

Second, think about how would you feel if you get these things.

What will happen if you got the new car? How your life will change?

Write these things down.

Your initial thought, probably, will be that you will feel like you’re really succeeding in life. But the thought that you’ll try to cover – the one that it’s really important for you. Is that the new purchase is primarily a tool to make others envy you. To make others like you more.

When you think about it though. Do you really want people to respect you for what you own? Not for who you are as a person?

When we demonstrate our worthiness through stuff, what we’re really doing is portraying emptiness.

We feel insecure and confused. We don’t know what we want to do with our lives and that’s why we adopt materialistic values.

Thirdly, moving beyond possessions. Do this: Write a list of things you enjoy doing.

Focus on experiences. On actions. On things you do with your hands. On conversations with people.

For example, building a chair from scratch. Writing an essay. Going for a walk with your kid and partner.

Fifth, think about how would you feel if you do more interesting things rather than purchase more physical possessions?

In other words, what do you think will feel better: Purchasing new writing equipment regularly? Or, writing a novel and discussing that novel with your partner?

I bet it’s the writing and the discussions that will count.

Finally, think about this: Can you keep doing what feels good without constantly trying to own more things?

When you choose what to devote your life to. When you are no longer looking for someone better – but choose to stay together with the person you said yes to “for better or worse”. You’re no longer trying to impress others.

The point is settling.

You settle for doing certain things. For being part of certain relationships.

This initially might seem unexciting. But eventually, will start to feel better.

You are no longer depressed because you don’t have it all. You feel liberated because you realize that you don’t need to have it all.

Spending every waking hour restlessly scouring the online shopping malls for the perfect item that will make you look superior in front of others is no longer part of your portfolio of actions.

In other words, you don’t dream about what type of joys alternative relationships or items can bring. You focus on nurturing the current relationships and using the items you already have that will support your desired calling.

Some Closing Thoughts

Will getting a new laptop make me feel good?

Absolutely.

Will this feeling going to last?

Absolutely not.

The growing materialism in society instills the wrong values in individuals. We become more resentful towards people. Towards creating useful and valuable creations. And only interested in owning more shiny stuff so we can signal to others that we are worth following.

But soon after you get something. Soon after you go somewhere. You are quickly reminded of how much more there is to possess. To visit.

So, instead of being satisfied with what you already own. Where you’ve been. You are further focusing on how less you own compared to everything available.

This is not only depressing. But it places you in a loop where you are chasing things you will never have.

Thriving in our materialistic society requires being able to settle on a specific group of people, things, and activities. Not completely shut the outside world. But being able to function even when the outside world is constantly shouting “own more”.

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Footnotes:

  1. The original paper by Springer (this one) explains how changes in materialism relate to changes in well-being.
  2. But this doesn’t mean that you should have everything writing-related to be a writer.
  3. There is a whole concept of retail therapy. Shopping is commonly prescribed as a therapy to eliminate sadness. However, it’s only a short-term solution.
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