- This article addresses materialism in the economic sense of the word. For information on the philosophical and scientific meanings, see materialism.
Materialism (adj. materialistic) is the importance a consumer attaches to acquiring and consuming material goods. Also called acquisitiveness, 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.
Materialism can be considered a pragmatic form of enlightened self-interest based on a prudent understanding of the character of capitalist society. However, studies have found that it is also associated with self-destructive behavior and depression.
Materialism as a personality trait
Russell Belk conceptualizes materialism to include three original personality traits.
- 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
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.
Growing materialism in the western world
In the western world, there is a growing trend of increasing materialism in reaction to discontent. 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.
In one survey, 1 in 14 Americans said they would murder someone for $3 million and 65% of respondents said they would spend a year on a deserted island to earn $1 million.
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 more than 80% to about 40%, while the purpose of obtaining financial gain rose from about 40% to more than 75%.
Materialism and happiness
A series of studies have observed a correlation between materialism and unhappiness. 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. Tibor Scitovsky called this a "joyless economy" in which people endlessly pursue comforts to the detriments of pleasures.
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. 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. Materialism also positively correlates with more serious psychological issues such as depression, narcissism and paranoia.
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.
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 a car. Even just thinking about experiential purchases makes people happier than thinking about material ones.
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