"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Attachment to material things increases the likelihood of depression and low self-esteem, says 2013 study published in Motivation and Emotion. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.
A study published this year shows a significant correlation between materialism and poor psychological health. Eleven psychologists collaborated on research including three long-term studies with adults and an experiment using teenaged subjects. The results suggest that humans are strongly motivated by the desire to satisfy their psychological needs, and the more these needs are related to material consumption, the more difficult they are to satisfy.
The drive to buy things can be an exercise in social bonding among friends, so it is unclear that the lack of a “social” element to consumerism is really what brings about intense negative moods. Materialism may, however, limit the depth of some relationships and thereby feelings of genuine connection.
On the other hand, there may be psychological issues related to the very act of consumption. The production and purchase of commodities for needs other than survival came about relatively late in the chronology of humankind’s psychological development. With relatively few instinctual drives related to the activity, perhaps it simply cannot touch the psyche as deeply as other consumption-related behaviors. For example, buying a special gift for someone else may provoke a more powerful emotional current than buying the same gift for oneself.
Marx’s theory on alienation may also be relevant here, in that the disconnect between the act and fruits of our labor induces feelings of meaninglessness. Trade for physical goods with money is an abstraction, compounded by the greater abstraction of trading chunks of our lives and energies for this same money. It may be hard to wring psychological goods like happiness, truth, and love from such an abstraction.
The study may simply provide more compelling evidence for that old cliche: money can’t buy happiness. However, it still raises important questions about the nature of psychological illness. It is likely that materialistic behavior based on a desire to consume local foodstuffs or shift to the latest green technologies would also have a negative emotional impact. Whether you are struggling to keep up with the Joneses, equip yourself for a creative livelihood, or curb the guilt of your ballooning carbon footprint, Anxiety might be the nugget at the heart of your materialism.
So whatever the content of your consumerism, scholarly wisdom suggests you should relegate your attachment to material things to a reasonable minimum.