The effects of materialism on happiness

23 Mar 2015

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Many people around the globe are striving throughout their life towards one goal, happiness (Buss, 2000). Happiness has many definitions, including feeling good at any moment, affect balance (experiencing more happy emotions than bad) and life satisfaction (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). The terms happiness and subjective well-being, are often used interchangeably (Diener, 2000). Happiness is important to study, as evidence suggests it is positively correlated to health and longevity (Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005; Veenhoven, 2008). Social psychological research offers suggestions to assist people to understand themselves and how they can improve their life satisfaction and overall happiness. There are many different ways people can attempt to achieve happiness, such as, through the consumption of material possessions (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). However, many researchers suggest that experiences and interpersonal relationships have a larger influence on happiness than material possessions (Kasser, 2004; Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). Evidence suggests that acquiring material possessions will decrease happiness, rather than increase it (Baumeister, 1991; Belk, 1988; Kasser & Ryan, 1993; Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). This paper will be analysing whether acquiring material possessions (such as cars, houses, furniture or electronics) or life experiences (such as holidays, sporting events, etc) and interpersonal relationships creates more happiness.

There is an increasing abundance of consumer goods available to purchase, and advertising gimmicks to make people think they need a product to increase their happiness. Take a visit to your local shopping mall, watch the advertisements on television, read the newspaper or "junk mail", and it becomes apparent that people feel the need to purchase many items to achieve life satisfaction and the ultimate happiness. Belk (1984) describes materialism as "The importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions" and "possessions assume a central place in a person's life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction" (p. 291). From this definition, it can be understood that the importance people place on their possessions, is of a high significance to them personally. Kasser (2004) describes possessions as extrinsic rewards. That is, possessions are external rewards in an attempt to satisfy needs. Evidence from correlational research has found a negative relationship between materialism and subjective well-being (Richins & Dawson, 1992), psychological wellbeing (Kasser & Ryan, 1993) and happiness (Belk, 1988).

Why then do people continue to purchase more materialistic goods when evidence suggests that it won't make them happy? Baumeister (1991) suggests happiness is increased when individuals purchase a materialistic asset. However, they then become habituated to the asset, resulting in a decline in happiness (Baumeister, 1991). For example, buying a new television; in the beginning, it's exciting and thus brings happiness, but after a short time, habituation occurs; then a newer television is brought onto the market with newer features and suddenly the purchased television doesn't seem so exciting, resulting in the individual purchasing more goods, whilst striving for their desired state of happiness. This phenomenon is called the adaptation level theory, which involves a contrast and habituation effect (Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). The adaptation theory, suggests that we adapt to stimuli (Argyle & Martin, 1991) and unless we continue to incorporate new stimuli, happiness will decrease. This has also been called hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill (Sheldon & Lyubomirsky, 2004). From this evidence, it can be inferred that purchasing materialistic goods can bring you happiness, however it is short lived.

Another plausible explanation as to why people continue to purchase materialistic goods is the social comparison theory (Festinger, 1948). The social comparison theory suggests people compare themselves to others, including their friends and family (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). For example, if friends in your social group have better materialistic items than you, then you will feel decreased happiness. You might think your friends think unfavourably of you, so you feel the need to buy items in order to be accepted once again. It could also be that you own the desired possessions and decrease your friends' happiness, in much the same way. Baumeister and Bushman (2008) explain that humans are cultural animals that need social connection through interpersonal relationships. Thus, feeling excluded from you social group can result in decreased happiness (Myers, 2000). Furthermore, correlational research has also found a relationship between individuals who purchase materialistic goods and depression, anxiety, physical symptomology, less vitality and behavioural disorders (Kasser, 2004; Kasser & Ahuvia, 2002). Thus, not only has purchasing material goods been found to decrease happiness, it can also have detrimental effects physically and emotionally.

Thus far it has been demonstrated that purchasing materialistic goods decreases happiness, rather than increase it. Which brings us to the question of what then can bring us happiness? Many people presume that having more money would increase their happiness (Myers, 2000). However, Brickman, et al. (1978) found an increase in wealth does not increase happiness as adaptation to the higher wealth occurs. Argyle and Martin (1991) suggest there are seven contributors to happiness, including, social contact; sexual behaviour; success and achievements; physical activity; nature, reading and music; food and beverages; and alcohol. Moreover, Weiss (2008) found happiness has a genetic component and external factors. The external factors are perhaps more simplistic than one would expect, such as social relationships. Evidence suggests having social contact and support from family, friends, attending church, contact with neighbours and fictive kin is positively correlated with happiness (Taylor, Chatters, Hardison & Riley, 2001). Humans need social connections, and people who are alone without these connections are unhappier, thus strong social networks are important for happiness (Baumeister & Bushman, 2008). Furthermore, Diener & Seligman (2002) found strong social relationships are a key ingredient for happiness and they even suggest "good social relationships are, like food and thermoregulation, universally important to human mood." (p. 83). Thus, social contact and meaningful relationships have been found to be vital for happiness.

Evidence suggests that unlike materialistic purchases, experiential purchases can increase happiness (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). Van Boven and Gilovich (2003) conducted four separate experiments investigating whether people self-rated their experience purchases or material purchases higher for their increased happiness, finding experiential purchases were rated higher than material purchases. One possible cause for experiential purchases to be rated higher than material purchases is the aforementioned adaptation theory. The adaptation theory has been researched extensively within happiness (and subjective well-being) studies. Such as Nicolao, Irwin and Goodman (2009), who found experiential purchases to have a slower adaptation compared to material purchases. Van Boven and Gilovich (2003) also found experiential purchases are thought about more often than material purchases.

Van Boven and Gilovich (2003) suggest three possibilities to explain why people favour experiential purchases over material purchases, including when people recall the event at a later time, is rated higher than the rating for the present; experiences become part of the individuals identity, whereas material possessions are external to them; and discussing the experience with others creates greater happiness, as it also serves as an interpersonal function. However, negative experiential purchases (such as a bad holiday) have been found to decrease happiness (Nicolau, et al., 2009). Furthermore, happiness has been strongly correlated with the frequency of positive affect experiences and infrequent negative affect experiences, but not the intensity and it is also suggested that frequent positive affect is a vital ingredient for happiness (Diener, Sandvik & Pavot, 1991). That is, having frequent positive emotional experiences are more important for happiness than having intense emotional experiences. For example, going to the beach and having a pleasurable time emotionally several times a week will increase happiness, rather than going once a week and having an intense emotional experience. Thus, having intense emotions and also frequent negative affect can decrease happiness.

It has been demonstrated that happiness is important for life satisfaction, health, longevity and overall well-being. Material possessions may increase an individuals' happiness, but it will only last a short time before adaptation will occur, resulting in a decline in happiness (Baumeister, 1991; Brickman, et al., 1978). The evidence offered in this paper consists of correlational studies, which offer causality, but can be bidirectional. Thus, it could be that consumption of materialistic goods causes a decline in happiness, however it may also be that unhappiness causes people to purchase more goods, or there could be a third factor that has not been investigated. There are perhaps some exceptions that can be applied to when material possessions do increase happiness, such as a sentimental object that has been given by a relative (or friend) that has passed or moved a great distance away. It has been demonstrated that the main determinants of happiness are not related to consumption at all. Perhaps before making that next purchase, people need to ask themself if they really need the item (not a basic necessity like food, shelter or clothing), or why they are buying it in the first place. The evidence presented in this paper suggests having strong interpersonal relationships through social connections and frequent positive affect will increase your happiness more than purchasing the latest gadget or designer clothes.

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