Does Materialism Distort Our Perception of Happiness?

Michael Rucker, PhD, (2021, November 1). Does Materialism Distort Our Perception of Happiness?. Psychreg on Positive Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/materialism-distort-perception-happiness/

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Materialism, generally described as the measure of importance we have for our material possessions, is often framed in a negative light. There is a good reason for this, as being overly materialistic is often negatively associated with well-being. This assertion also has scientific merit, as several studies have found that materialistic people tend to be unhappier, feel less competent, and have worse social relationships than their less self-indulgent counterparts.

However, are all desires for indulgent purchases toxic? And if material purchases come with risks, how can you mitigate those risks?

Self-perception 

One way to examine materialism is through the lens of self-perception. According to various studies, self-perception and self-evaluation are dependent not only on the absolute nature of one’s accomplishments and performance but also on how one socially compares oneself to others. 

Francis Fukuyama, the author of The End of History, argues that humans desire some things ‘not for themselves but because they are desired by other human beings.’ As established and emerging social media platforms seed themselves deeper into our daily routines, our consumption of the curated desires of others can have ill effects on our self-perception, as well as our happiness. This has resulted in many of us having our happiness set-point skewed; and by proxy, the incline and speed of our hedonic treadmill increased. 

Experience vs things

The modern increase in opportunities for social comparison means we need to look at hedonic adaptation with fresh eyes and work on building a better understanding of what things really bring us lasting joy.

Social comparison will likely never go away, but we can deliberately anchor our expectations against what we intrinsically find fun and joyful rather than transient desires externally influenced by outside forces like marketing and social media influence. One effective way to do this is to invest in experiences rather than possessions. Professor Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University made a point of saying that while new things are ‘exciting to us at first’, most lose their utility as time passes. 

Think about it: that piece of clothing is rarely ever as exciting as the first time you take it off the rack. In fact, according to research, people are far more satisfied when they purchase experiences than when they buy material objects. This even applies to the waiting period: the excited anticipation of an experience yet to come generally elicits more happiness than any significant waiting period we endure to receive a material purchase.

Think of the simple comparison of queueing to get into a concert versus waiting in line at a Black Friday sale. While in queue for a show, people often socialise and connect with one another in the shared excitement of the experience they’re about to partake in; leading to a positive experience even in waiting for the event. When piled outside a shopfront to be allowed to shop on Black Friday, however, anxiety is usually the shared emotion, or worse, annoyance and anger once the scarcity of a ‘good deal’ runs its course. 

In general, buying things rooted in experience (when compared to physical goods) has longer-lasting utility and will bring us more delight from our investment. For example, by investing in a cooking class, you will likely be able to savour a collection of experiences, not only with your classmates but also in the future, with all who you touch with your new cooking mastery.

Perceived value and happiness

There is a notable exception to the experience vs things argument: material goods that are of an experiential nature. Say you’re a guitar player, when you invest in a great guitar, you’re buying stock in building experiences and memories that you can savour with an activity you are passionate about. 

The strategy here is to be mindful of any material good’s perceived value when making a purchase. Perceived value is your internal evaluation of the utility you will get from any product or service vs. the actual reality that the purchase meets your needs and expectations.

In order to truly benefit from material purchases, ask yourself these two fundamental questions: First, does your discretionary spending bring you any worry or anxiety? Next, do the things you purchase bring you lasting joy or only bursts of excitement? 

Money might not buy us happiness, but it is hard to argue there isn’t hedonic value in discretionary spending. Consumerism runs deep in our society and undoubtedly helps power the hedonic treadmill. Staying mindful of how our purchases really affect our happiness is a great way to maximise the joy we hope to gain with any given purchase.


Michael Rucker, PhD is a long-time advocate of positive psychology and a charter member of the International Positive Psychology Association.


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