How materialism makes us sad

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The more we spend, the less happy we are. Can this explain why affluent politicians insist on taking from the poor?

Graham Music, a psychotherapist, has written a book called The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality. It confirms, through use of data collected by scientists over the last 40 years, what we have all long suspected from anecdote and our own eyes: the materialistic tend to be unhappy, those with material goods will remain unhappy, and the market feeds on unhappiness. It is an outreach programme for personal and political desolation; and it is, so far, an outstanding success. Peel away the images of the gaudy objects and find instead a condition. Reading Vanity Fair, I deduce, is now mere collusion with the broken.

I have struggled, for instance, to understand why a British cabinet so loaded with the affluent should be blithe in taking from those who have less – the destruction of the educational maintenance allowance, the bedroom tax, the despicable campaign against disabled people and the unemployed, and so on and on. Why would a wealthy Tory MP (I close my eyes, and land, randomly, on Nadhim Zahawi of Stratford-on-Avon) overcharge the public by more than £4,000 to heat his stables and yet languidly vote for austerity measures? (Not his austerity, obviously: austerity is for the already poor).

It was always madness, even as they pushed the "big society", and when that imploded like a farting balloon painted an entire class as undeserving, which will be the epitaph of this government: to the undeserving, nothing. Others call this the language of "class war", an effective and duplicitous soundbite designed to terrify. War? Who wants war? No one, of course.

Except it is not class war. Or rather, there is confusion about who, exactly, is the aggressor. A study at Berkeley University, quoted by Music, provides an answer to the question of why wealthy politicians act as they do, although I do not doubt they delude themselves as to their motives: "The higher up the social-class ranking people are, the less pro-social, charitable and empathetically they behaved … consistently those who were less rich showed more empathy and more of a wish to help others." This would be an obvious point, except it is daily contradicted by the appalling "skivers versus strivers" rhetoric, a false dichotomy that is also moronic propaganda-by-rhyme.

Tim Kasser, for instance, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, notes that if you love material objects, you are less likely to love people and so, of course, the planet. The connection between the rise of materialism and indifference to the environment is not coincidental; nor is the connection between the rise of materialism and growing inequality, and fear of the stranger, which expresses itself here in a despicable loathing for the Roma, for instance, and there in a fashionable fetish for Ukip. Money is a brutalising agent and a paranoiac drug.

Written By: Tanya Gold
continue to source article at theguardian.com

27 COMMENTS

  1. Is this really news? I’m quite sure all but the most deluded capitalists realize that an obsession with material wealth and success is a certain path to misery. Of course, if you are poor you are likely to be unhappy. But the same goes for people with more money than they need. Rich people are usually very paranoid and afraid of losing what they’ve got. Hence, they are suspicious of others and most of the time only interact with other rich people who reinforce their paranoid worldview. At the same time rich people rarely are satisfied or think they have enough money or wealth. I mean, you don’t need a billion dollars to live a happy life. You hardly even need millions of dollars. Fact is, that for rich people money is not just a means to and end. Money is the end purpose. Their self-esteem and sense of purpose in life is bound to their wealth. That’s why so many billionaires commit suicide when they lose a large portion of their wealth. It’s not that they are poor. They still have more money than 99,9% of the rest of the population, but that does not matter. They have lost face. The fact that they still have enough money to live the rest of their lives in excess does not matter.

  2. Could it be the other way around? The unhappier you are, the more you tend to spend to somehow “make up” for it?

    I think that’s what happens to me, when I’m feeling really low or depressed. Not that usual now, though. I still do spend quite a bit on gadgets! Love them :)

  3. In reply to #1 by Nunbeliever:

    Is this really news? I’m quite sure all but the most deluded capitalists realize that an obsession with material wealth and success is a certain path to misery. Of course, if you are poor you are likely to be unhappy. But the same goes for people with more money than they need. Rich people are usual…

    I am reminded of the research, conducted by Ed Diener and others, into the link between happiness and wealth. According to that research, increasing wealth has its biggest effects on the extremely poor, and while an increase in wealth does increase happiness, you get diminishing returns up to around a point of $75,000 dollars per annum or so. After that, monetary increases have a negligible effect on happiness.

    That’s why so many billionaires commit suicide when they lose a large portion of their wealth.

    Do they?

    In reply to #2 by slifts:

    It´s quite absurd to complain about materialism through a computer.

    Not really. The complaint is about the excessive materialism of the super-rich, do you not notice? You can buy a half-decent computer for a couple hundred these days, anyway.

    In reply to #3 by GPWC:

    What is this article doing on RD.net? This isn’t religion and it isn’t science.

    But it is science. At least, they quote scientific findings in the article, and social affairs can be studied scientifically.

    • In reply to #6 by Zeuglodon:

      According to that research, increasing wealth has its biggest effects on the extremely poor, and while an increase in wealth does increase happiness, you get diminishing returns up to around a point of $75,000 dollars per annum or so. After that, monetary increases have a negligible effect on happiness.

      Yes, I’ve heard about that study as well and I think it makes sense.

      Do they?

      Well, to be honest I don’t know ;) It just seemed like a good way to end my comment, haha…

    • In reply to #6 by Zeuglodon:

      The complaint is about the excessive materialism of the super-rich, do you not notice?

      I don’t see that mentioned anywhere in the article. I suppose many people will interpret it that way. I think the “unhappiness” of the rich is not a consequence of their large bank accounts. I think their misery stems from disillusionment and self-deception.

      Many people with low or average incomes dream of becoming rich. Many of those people delude themselves into thinking that money will solve all their problems. That’s one reason why so many people waste hard-earned income on lottery tickets. Many people who do become rich find themselves disillusioned by the realization that money doesn’t really procure this well-being they were convinced it would.

      Money is like technology, it’s a commodity. It’s not bad as such. It’s what you do with it. An intelligent rational and compassionate person won’t become unhappy if he/she somehow inherits a huge fortune overnight. How one decides to use that money is the determinant, not the money itself.

      Money is not a brutalising agent, it’s more like a brutalizing enabler for people who were already brutes before they acquired the wealth. But I do agree that for the insanely wealthy people, making money is a drug. And drugs don’t make people happy, they just make them more and more addicted.

      • In reply to #9 by NearlyNakedApe:

        Money is not a brutalising agent, it’s more like a brutalizing enabler for people who were already brutes before they acquired the wealth.

        Well, I think there are many mechanisms at work here. Rich people are treated differently in our societies. They are more often praised and achieve a lot more attention than poor people. They more often achieve positions of power and are much more influential than others. By time it’s not all that surprising that many rich people actually start to believe they are more important than poor people. That their opinions and decisions are of more importance and in general better than those of poor people. My father was a navigating officer and told many stories of how captains back in the days often were quite arrogant and regarded themselves as superior to others. His explanation was that they worked in an environment where they were rarely questioned by their crew and got used to making all decisions independently without asking for advice. By time, they actually begun to feel irreplaceable and that all the other crew members were imbeciles who were only good for following orders. I think this is true for rich people in general.

        Power corrupts, and money is power. If you live a privileged life, chances are you will actually start to think that you are entitled to your privileges. To some extent I think that is inevitable, because how can a rich person sleep at night if he truly acknowledges that his privileged life style is only due to chance. He got a better set of cards than poor people. He won the lottery. That’s not how people usually relate to success. We want to believe that we have earned our success, and hence are entitled to our success. The reality though is that, even if rich people might be smart, creative and have other good traits the are above all very lucky. But, few people are able to really acknowledge and embrace that fact. I read a very interesting study where they observed people playing Monopoly. Some of the players got a lot more money and had a range of other privileges in comparison to other players. Still, when they were interviewed afterwards these lucky winners discussed different strategies and really believed their success was due to their brilliant playing. They even ate more snacks and in general became louder and more arrogant while playing.

        This goes to show that humans need to feel that their success is earned. We have a very hard time accepting that our success and fortunes are due to luck. That’s because most people are not psychopaths. We care about justice. But, that also means that if we admit that our success is mainly due to luck it might be hard to sleep at night when you know people are starving while you live in a mansion and eat at luxury restaurants. It’s not all that surprising that many rich people hate the poor. Because they remind them of how lucky they are, so they have to come up with some excuse for allowing themselves to be rich…. and voila, we hear all these rich people say how poor people are just lazy, stupid or in other ways unworthy of success. Problem solved!

  4. we all know town centres near christmas are hateful places full of rude people with no time to make eye contact and ready to punch anyone who gets in their way.

    I noticed after moving house recently that the opposite is true of council recycling centres. conversely, people driving a car full of crap they don’t need to a dump are always courteous and smiling and I have to say, chucking old stuff into a skip is an uplifting experience. I may suggest this year to people laden down with gifts to take them straight to the dump where most of it will end up anyway they’ll go home much happier

  5. I don’t see a problem with possessions. I think having objects that you love especially those that acquire a personal, nostaligic charge, the significant gifts of lovers or family, that longed for Widget, are not reductive.

    It is the relentless accumulation of the transient stuff, the transience of which is driven by an industry keen to have their products age and die on you, that remove them from the possibility of long term treasuring. Thanks technology. Thanks fashion.

    The hifi modular systems of the seventies evolved. It was your system, unlike most others and only the out of date bits were ditched, often sold on to less demanding users and replaced by a new good bit. Like the broom whose handle and head have been replaced at differing times, its still the broom you bought at that hardware store.

    Its hard to have an affinity with disposable objects. It may be why people crave brands- for the sense of an emotional continuity. Clever marketeers. Your new Apple is still your Apple.

    I contend a return to modular products able to be “evolved” will not only hugely reduce the chronic waste evolving technology currently engenders, but it will reconnect people with their stuff and quite without the sham of Brands.

    • In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

      I don’t see a problem with possessions. I think having objects that you love especially those that acquire a personal, nostaligic charge, the significant gifts of lovers or family, that longed for Widget, are not reductive.

      Exactly! I remember a time when children used to inherit furniture and items from their parents. What do young parents today leave for their children to inherit? Everything is expendable. I visited a design exhibition a few years ago and they had an early 19th century carpet, from some country along the old silk way, on display. The guide told us that it was a custom for mothers to make these carpets as gifts for their daughters when they got married. The guide estimated that it took at least three years to make a carpet like the one on display. I was amazed by the thought of owning something that a person had devoted many years of her life to make. I can only imagine how emotionally attached people were to these carpets and items in general. Nowadays most things are mass produced in generic factories by faceless people (if people are actually even involved in the process). We know very little about the origin and history of the products we buy. No surprise, many people today feel so rootless. I mean, everything around us lack roots as well.

      • In reply to #12 by Nunbeliever:

        In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

        We know very little about the origin and history of the products we buy. No surprise, many people today feel so rootless. I mean, everything around us lack roots as well.

        Certainly I detect an upsurge in interest in artisan products. This is one of the reasons also that I am interested in 3D printing. I see it as a way that people can input into their stuff at all sorts of levels depending on skill and creativity.

        Your point about the sheer work that went into family made heirlooms, a piece of embroidery, say, is well taken.

        Of all the toys I had as a child, the one that resonates with me most (I think of it often) is a toy garage with fuel pumps in the forecourt, glazed windows and shutters opening onto the workshop area, a working car hoist, ramps, sales posters, lights, etc.etc. made for me by my dad and beautifully finished. At the time I was a bit disappointed it wasn’t like the one in the toyshop window. Now it is the acme of presents. Its personal charge is full to brimming and I’m blinking away tears as I think of it…

    • In reply to #10 by phil rimmer:

      I don’t see a problem with possessions. I think having objects that you love especially those that acquire a personal, nostaligic charge, the significant gifts of lovers or family, that longed for Widget, are not reductive.

      It is the relentless accumulation of the transient stuff, the transience of…

      I contend a return to modular products able to be “evolved” will not only hugely reduce the chronic waste evolving technology currently engenders, but it will reconnect people with their stuff and quite without the sham of Brands.

      Couldn’t agree more, I’m far more excited by my $50 rasberry Pi than I am by ipads. I cannot hack an Ipad (well I could but I wouldn’t be able to use it as an Ipad anymore). I can use the pi to do any number of things. Even just knowing the possibilities drives me to actually engage with technology, be part of it rather than just use it in the way that say apple allows. 3D printers may help in this regard also.

  6. The more we spend, the less happy we are. Can this explain why affluent politicians insist on taking from the poor?

    There is a mistaken perception that showing off goods and wasting resources is a sign of status and “superiority”. (It is in terms of perceived pecking-order in some cultures).

    In tribal societies, pigs or cattle are/were accumulated as a sign of wealth, with status being boosted by sacrificing some of these, at a protein-rich party in cultures which only had a basic diet.

    This has been transformed in the “conspicuous consumption” of the stretch Humvee, the palatial office, or the “executive jet”, which basically function to impress and pose, without benefit to others.

    It is a culture of grabbing money/assets and wastefully throwing it around as a sign of status.

    The superficiality of this can be seen in Hollywood “stars”, hiring posh cars, mansions, hotel suites, jewellery and clothes, for public appearances.

    It was also illustrated in the past when aristocrats, displaced by revolutions or wars, could not cook a basic meal or make a drink for themselves, when separated from their wealth and their servants.

    There is a sometimes similar situation when wealthy executives, stooge politicians, over-paid actors, or offspring of the wealthy, are displaced from high income jobs, and then struggle because they lack the basic everyday skills to earn a living, when ejected from their niches, or their contracts end.

    • In reply to #19 by Alan4discussion:

      The more we spend, the less happy we are. Can this explain why affluent politicians insist on taking from the poor?

      There is a mistaken perception that showing off goods and wasting resources is a sign of status and “superiority”. (It is in terms of perceived pecking-order in some cultures).

      Not so mistaken. Even today it will win breeding rights from healthier stock for you and yours. The “Mad Men” not only make you dissatisfied with what you’ve got, they make you jealous of fantasy others.

  7. What if we were to look at this from a completely different angle? We all know that the ultra rich are greedy, selfish, unlovable creatures (with a few notable exceptions). There are aphorisms aplenty to reinforce the notion that a life devoid of possessions can be superior and puts us on a higher moral plane. We have role models to back this up, e.g. The Buddha aka Siddhartha Gautama, Francis of Assissi, et al. Those we most admire are prepared to give away their worldly goods and lead a simple, noble life. If this is the path to a happy life, why is it that the mega rich are not rushing to divest themselves of all that misery-inducing wealth?

    I can’t claim to own these thoughts completely because I was forced to think along these lines recently when a friend suggested that these phrases were just deepities designed to undermine the Protestant work ethic. I’m also tempted to think that these are just more of the lies we tell ourselves in order to justify our position.

    I expect that I’m on completely the wrong track, but I thought I’d put the idea out there for consideration.

    • In reply to #21 by Nitya:

      If a more or less permanent happiness is our goal then why not just develop a drug to make us maximally happy until we die? It would probably be a very expensive drug, so maybe the rich are holding onto their money to buy the perfect pill.

      Happiness can be just a feeling among many others. A desire to be happy doesn’t have to be with us always, or a significant contributor to our decision making; let alone the final arbiter.

      • In reply to #22 by Sean_W:

        In reply to #21 by Nitya:

        If a more or less permanent happiness is our goal then why not just develop a drug to make us maximally happy until we die? It would probably be a very expensive drug, so maybe the rich are holding onto their money to buy the perfect pill.

        Maybe there are pills that do just that, hence the popularity of recreational drugs.

        Happiness is just a feeling like many others.

        I agree. It’s in the mix with all those things that make life worth living. I enjoy a feeling of security, nonetheless. I wouldn’t like to be burdened with the prospect of not being able to pay bills or having to think twice about seeking medical treatment if the occasion arose.

        • In reply to #23 by Nitya:

          Absolutely, being poor is difficult. I hope I haven’t come across as advocating happiness despite circumstances. I’m mostly interested in an obsession with happiness as the goal.

          • In reply to #24 by Sean_W:

            In reply to #23 by Nitya:

            Absolutely, being poor is difficult. I hope I haven’t come across as advocating happiness despite circumstances. I’m mostly interested in an obsession with happiness as the goal.

            No, you didn’t come across that way at all ( ie happiness as a goal in itself). I’m just mulling over a few ideas as a matter of fact. I’m really trying to tie in the fact that truisms such as money isn’t everything, you can’t buy happiness, love of money is the root of all evil, (a happy wife is ) barefoot and pregnant, the camel and the eye of a needle etc are so prevalent in our thinking. Is it because they are in fact true! Or is it just a way of keeping our aspirations down?

            I tend to think we are programmed to see our position as the ideal and anything extra is excessive. In comparison to most of the world’s population we are unbelievably rich! And yet we view others such as the aristocracy or media barons, drug lords etc as being beyond the pale.

            Another point I’m really interested in exploring is the relationship between these disincentives to wealth, and the Protestant ideal of hard work for financial gain.

    • In reply to #21 by Nitya:

      What if we were to look at this from a completely different angle? We all know that the ultra rich are greedy, selfish, unlovable creatures (with a few notable exceptions). There are aphorisms aplenty to reinforce the notion that a life devoid of possessions can be superior and puts us on a higher m…

      I’ve never known any ultra rich people personally. But I’ve known plenty of rich people and in general I don’t think they were necessarily any better or worse on average than other people. I think it’s a lie to tell ourselves that there is something immoral about wanting to succeed and make money. There is nothing wrong with that in itself and if applied the right way it can motivate people (along with other motives) to do very creative and productive things.

      • In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

        You may have noticed that I made reference to Trivers’ ideas? I’m half way through his book and I thought that the example he gave us re our tendency to say that we don’t want what we don’t have , is applicable in this case.

        I don’t know any billionaires either, and I’m sure that I wouldn’t like them if I did ( though Bill and Melinda Gates seem very nice). No doubt these mythical billionaires wouldn’t like me ( what with all my leftish ideas and all). I have a mental picture of greedy, grasping, ruthless, money obsessed parasites feeding off the sweat of their underpaid workers.

        To a goodly proportion of the world’s population, we fit these stereotypes!

        • In reply to #27 by Nitya:

          In reply to #25 by Red Dog:

          You may have noticed that I made reference to Trivers’ ideas? I’m half way through his book and I thought that the example he gave us re our tendency to say that we don’t want what we don’t have , is applicable in this case.

          Exactly.

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