Buy less and be happier for it

The wellbeing industry

The word ‘wellbeing’ is bandied about pretty liberally these days, used as a catch-all for anything wanting to be viewed as good or positive. Unfortunately, the term is rarely accompanied by a definition of exactly what sort of wellbeing is on offer or what kind of benefits it might confer. Increasingly, ‘wellbeing’ has become little more than an attention-grabbing phrase in a brand name or headline, used to promote positive vibes while deftly avoiding any sort of definition or meaning. Worse, there’s a growing wellbeing ‘industry’, that’s busily commoditising and commercialising wellbeing as if it’s a product that can be bought and consumed. Type ‘wellbeing products’ into a search engine and you’ll discover that all manner of things you thought were just – well, things – are actually vital ‘wellness and wellbeing aids’: including everything from scented candles to brain imaging software, pillows to digital scales, cosmetics to bread.

As the following clip from Aussie comedy show The Checkout shows, when consumption items are connected to a positive and healthy sounding message, there’s literally nothing that can’t be peddled as a means to a happier, healthier, more wonderful life. After all, how can you ever reach the ultimate yoga goal of moksha (aka enlightenment, liberation and release) if you don’t have the right brand of yoga pants or accompanying wine glasses.

What is materialism?

There’s no denying it, Australia is a consumer society. And things like money, possessions and beauty are often seen as preferred pathways to happiness, satisfaction, and wellbeing. For many Australians, the benchmark for success and happiness is how much you earn or spend on things like houses, cars, clothes and holidays. We call this ‘materialism’, but materialism isn’t just valuing money and objects, it’s also placing importance on things like power, status and self-image. Materialistic people often value things for what they cost, or how much attention they might get them, rather than how useful an object is or any satisfaction that comes from actually using it. Houses, eating habits, clothes and everyday objects become status symbols to make people feel like they fit in better with their social circle, or display information about one’s wealth or position. To put it simplistically, while it’s true that a $30 watch and a $3000 watch both tell the same time, only one can announce your income and place in society without being so vulgar as to have to voice it aloud.

Materialism and wellbeing

Despite the relentless barrage of messages from advertisers and governments that all we need for happiness is more money and stuff, there’s actually overwhelming scientific evidence that materialism is a negative predictor of wellbeing. In fact, it’s consistently related to reduced wellbeing across a range of outcomes, including life satisfaction, mental and physical health symptoms, happiness, self-appraisals, and risky behaviour. Research shows that materialistic people are less satisfied with their lives, experience less fun and enjoyment, feel less meaning in life, and have fewer positive emotions and more negative emotions.

Sure, possessions and status can bring short-term happiness, but this feeling is fleeting and needs to be ‘topped’ up regularly by buying more stuff, going on more holidays, or winning more admiration. It’s called being on the ‘hedonic treadmill’. As this article from explains, no matter how happy a new purchase makes us in the moment, the experience will soon pass and we’ll have to jump back on the treadmill of materialism to replenish those good feelings. In contrast, having more-generative goals related to personal growth, meaningful relationships, and contributing to something bigger than yourself, leads to a deeper, more enduring sense of wellbeing.
Image: Tim Kasser,

What’s really interesting is that there seems to be something inherent in a material lifestyle that prevents people from living in ways that make them happy and healthy. This is likely because certain life goals are circumplex and operate as opposing forces, meaning you can’t have goals in one area while pursuing those in another. As the diagram above indicates, several scientific models of human values and wellbeing have found that materialistic goals of financial success, image, and popularity are directly opposed to more generative and self-transcendent goals such as community-mindedness, unity with nature, social justice, benevolence, and spirituality. What’s even more interesting is that the same behaviour can have different effects on wellbeing depending on what a person’s motivation was for doing it. For instance, buying an expensive car to look good and impress your friends won’t benefit wellbeing (and will probably reduce it over time). But buying an expensive but necessary car to go on more family trips with the kids or to travel and broaden your cultural horizons might help boost wellbeing in other ways. The important takeaway, though, is that the key to wellbeing in this scenario is spending time with loved ones, or learning new things. Not the type of car you drive or how much it cost.

4 ways to become less materialistic

So how can we resist the temptations of money and stuff, and find less materialistic ways to keep ourselves happy?

1. Find more meaning in your life

Like the scenario I just mentioned with the car, sometimes we can get confused about what’s really bringing us pleasure or contentment. To identify what brings true meaning to your life (and cut out the white noise of materialism) try the following exercise.

Exercise: Imagine you’re at your 90th birthday party, surrounded by friends and loved ones. Finish this sentence:

I wish I’d spent more time _____________________________________________________________ .

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

2. Develop an attitude of gratitude

Gratitude is the glue that holds couples, families, friends and communities together. This article in Greater Good Magazine explains how fostering gratitude for the things you already have (family, possessions, health, food on the table, a sunny day) is an antidote for materialism and a recipe for increased wellbeing.

Exercise: To cultivate gratitude, try keeping a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, think of one thing you’re grateful for and jot it down in the journal. It could be a person in your life, something someone did for you, an opportunity you’ve been given, or something nice that happened that day. If you struggle to journal every day, trying noting things you’re grateful for and writing them all down at the end of the week.

To get the whole family involved, create a gratitude ‘jar’ or gratitude ‘shoebox’ in which everyone can note down things they’re grateful for on small slips of paper. Once a month, get the family together to empty the jar or box and share what everyone was grateful for.

Photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

3. Serve something bigger than yourself

The direct opposite of the materialistic life is the generative life. Generativity is the ability to think beyond our own personal interests and instead do things for other people and for society as a whole. It goes hand in hand with the question, “How can I make my life count?” Unlike materialism, generativity is a well-recognised pathway to wellbeing.

Exercise: Instead of going on that shopping trip or extra holiday, increase the number of generative activities in your life. Think about what interests, skills and knowledge you have to offer, and find a generative activity to suit. This might be:

– volunteering in your community
– mentoring someone
– donating money or goods to charity
– supporting an environmental, social, or animal rights cause
– reaching out to a neighbour.

Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

4. Distinguish between ‘need’ and ‘want’

We all have to buy and consume things, there’s no getting away from that. But before we hand over our hard-earned dollars and use up more of the Earth’s resources, we should look more closely at whether the things we buy are ‘wants’ or ‘needs’. For instance, we all need water, but do we need a bottle of Perrier shipped from the other side of the world, or just water from the tap? We may need transport to school or work, but do we need a a twin-turbo V8 with duoTone colour scheme and boot designed for matching Louis Vuitton luggage, or just a safe, reliable car that’s comfortable and fuel-efficient?

Exercise: Before your next 10 purchases (big or small), think about why you feel compelled to buy a particular item. Does the item come under the heading of a need or want? Can you go without it, or is there an alternative that might be less materialistic or better for the planet?

A further exercise is to really pay attention to ads on TV and radio rather than letting them wash over you and sink in subconsciously. What sort of wellbeing claims is the ad making about a product, and do these claims stand up to scrutiny? Is one particular brand of bread really a ‘wellbeing product’ or is it just bread? More importantly, are the advertisers simply appealing to materialistic values in people; for instance, making promises like “this product will make you richer, happier, more popular, better looking etc.” If you can recognise the tricks and false claims that advertisers use to push their products, you’ll be better positioned to resist them.

Featured image at top by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Further reading

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser

Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss

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