Economic materialism

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Materialism is a personal attitude which attaches importance to acquiring and consuming material goods.

The use of the term materialistic tends to describe a person's personality or a society tends to have a negative or critical connotation. Also called acquisitiveness, it is often associated with a value system which regards social status as being determined by affluence (see conspicuous consumption), as well as the belief that possessions can provide happiness. Environmentalism can be considered a competing orientation to materialism.[1]

Materialism can be considered a pragmatic form of enlightened self-interest based on a prudent understanding of the character of market-oriented economy and society.


Consumer research typically looks at materialism in two ways: one as a collection of personality traits;[2] and the other as an enduring belief or value.[3]

Materialism as a personality trait[edit]

Russell W. Belk conceptualizes materialism to include three original personality traits.[2]

  • Nongenerosity – an unwillingness to give or share possession with others.
  • Envy – desire for other people's possessions.
  • Possessiveness – concern about loss of possessions and a desire for the greater control of ownership.

Materialism as a value[edit]

Acquisition centrality is when acquiring material possession functions as a central life goal with the belief that possessions are the key to happiness and that success can be judged by a person's material wealth and the quality and price of material goods she or he can buy.[4]

Growing materialism in the western world[edit]

In the western world, there is a growing trend of increasing materialism in reaction to discontent.[5] Research conducted in the United States shows that recent generations are focusing more on money, image, and fame than ever before, especially since the generations of Baby Boomers and Generation X.[6]

In one survey of Americans, over 7% said they would seriously murder someone for $3 million and 65% of respondents said they would spend a year on a deserted island to earn $1 million.[7]

A survey conducted by the University of California and the American Council on Education on 250,000 new college students found that their main reason for attending college was to gain material wealth. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, the percentage of students who stated that their main reason for going to college was to develop a meaningful life philosophy dropped from 73% to 44%, while the purpose of obtaining financial gain rose from about 44% to 75%.[8]

Materialism and happiness[edit]

A series of studies have observed a correlation between materialism and unhappiness.[9][10] Studies in the United States have found that an increase in material wealth and goods in the country has had little to no effect on the well-being and happiness of its citizens.[11][12] Tibor Scitovsky called this a "joyless economy" in which people endlessly pursue comforts to the detriments of pleasures.[13]

Using two measures of subjective well-being, one study found that materialism was negatively related to happiness, meaning that people who tended to be more materialistic were also less happy with themselves and their lives.[14] When people derive a lot of pleasure from buying things and believe that acquiring material possessions are important life goals, they tend to have lower life satisfaction scores.[3] Materialism also positively correlates with more serious psychological issues like depression, narcissism and paranoia.[15]

However, the relationship between materialism and happiness is more complex. The direction of the relationship can go both ways. Individual materialism can cause diminished well-being or lower levels of well-being can cause people to be more materialistic in an effort to get external gratification.[16]

In many East Asian cultures, the relationship between materialism, happiness, and well-being are associated with neutral or positive feelings. In China, materialism is often motivated by and through social relations, like families or villages, rather than an individualist pursuit of wealth. This suggests that materialism in interdependent, community-oriented cultures, like in China and Japan, may improve well-being and happiness rather harm them. However, even in independent cultures, people with social motives to acquire wealth may view materialism positively, indicating that the relationship between materialism and happiness is more complex than cultural differences.[17]

Instead, research shows that purchases made with the intention of acquiring life experiences such as going on a family vacation make people happier than purchases made to acquire material possessions such as an expensive car. Even just thinking about experiential purchases makes people happier than thinking about material ones.[18]A survey conducted by researchers at the Binghampton University School of Management found differences between what is called “success materialism” and “happiness materialism.” People who see materialism as a source of success tend to be more motivated to work hard and drive to succeed in order to make their lives better as opposed to people who see materialism as a source of happiness. However both mindsets don't account for other factors such as income or status that can affect happiness.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Banerjee, Bobby; McKeage, Kim (1994). "How Green Is My Value: Exploring the Relationship Between Environmentalism and Materialism". Advances in Consumer Research. 21: 147–152. Archived from the original on 13 April 2016.
  2. ^ a b Belk, Russell W. (1985). "Materialism: Trait aspects of living in the material world". Journal of Consumer Research. 12: 265–280. doi:10.1086/208515.
  3. ^ a b Richins, Marsha L.; Dawson, S. (1992). "A consumer values orientation for materialism and its measurement: Scale development and validation". Journal of Consumer Research. 19: 303–316. doi:10.1086/209304.
  4. ^ Richins, Marsha L. (1994). "Valuing things: The public and the private meanings of possessions". Journal of Consumer Research. 21: 504–521. doi:10.1086/209414.
  5. ^ Taylor, Steve. "The Madness of Materialism: Why are we so driven to accumulate possessions and wealth?". Psychology Today. Archived from the original on 23 December 2015.
  6. ^ Twenge, Jean M.; Campbell, W. Keith; Freeman, Elise C. (2012). "Generational differences in young adults' life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation 1966-2009" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 102 (5): 1045–1062. doi:10.1037/a0027408. PMID 22390226. Archived from the original (PDF) on 31 March 2016.
  7. ^ Kanner, Bernice (2001). Are You Normal about Money?. Princeton, NJ: Bloomberg Press. ISBN 9781576600870.
  8. ^ Myers, David G. (2000). "The funds, friends, and faith of happy people" (PDF). American Psychologist. 55 (1): 56–67. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.1.56. Archived from the original (PDF) on 9 April 2016.
  9. ^ Lyubomirsky, Sonja (August 10, 2010). "Can money buy happiness?". Scientific American. Archived from the original on 10 August 2013.
  10. ^ Mobiot, George (10 December 2013). "Materialism: a system that eats us from the inside out". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 10 March 2016.
  11. ^ Frank, Robert H. (1999). "Luxury fever: When money fails to satisfy in an era of excess". New York: Free Press. ISBN 0-7432-2340-3. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Easterlin, Richard A. (1995). "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?" (PDF). Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. 27: 35–47. doi:10.1016/0167-2681(95)00003-b. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 March 2016.
  13. ^ Scitovsky, Tibor (1976). The joyless economy: The psychology of human satisfaction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. ^ Belk, Russell W. (1984). "Three scales to measure constructs related to materialism: reliability, validity, and relationships to measure of happiness". Advances in Consumer Research. 11: 291–297.
  15. ^ Kasser, Tim; Ryan, Richard M. (1993). "A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 22: 280–287. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 April 2016.
  16. ^ Van Boven, Leaf; Gilovich, Tom (June 2005). "The social costs of materialism". Review of General Psychology. 9 (2): 132–142. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.132.
  17. ^ Yoo, Jiah; Miyamoto, Yuri; Evers, Uwana; Lee, Julie; Wong, Nancy (2021-01-01). "Does Materialism Hinder Relational Well-Being? The Role of Culture and Social Motives". Journal of Happiness Studies. 22 (1): 241–261. doi:10.1007/s10902-020-00227-7. ISSN 1573-7780.
  18. ^ Van Boven, Leaf (2005). "Experientialism, materialism, and the pursuit of happiness" (PDF). Review of General Psychology. 9 (2): 132–142. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.9.2.132. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 May 2016.
  19. ^ Stieg, Cory (5 September 2019). "How you think about money can impact how happy you are in life, study says". CNBC.