There are certain truths in life. The sky is blue. Don’t discuss politics at dinner. Materialism doesn’t make you happy. But in all things, there is also nuance. While psychological studies show that empty materialism leads to negative feelings, there’s also the concept of good materialism—an intentional type of consumerism that can make us feel fulfilled, connected, and happy.
Why empty consumption leaves us unfulfilled
If money could buy happiness, the inside of your storage unit would be the happiest place on earth. Or one of the happiest places—more than 50,000 storage facilities (with an average of 500 compartments each) now dot American soil. U-Haul, Public Storage, and the like make up a $22 billion self-storage industry. That’s a lot of stuff. A lot of stored perceived happiness.
As it is, the amount of stuff you have isn’t directly proportional to the amount of happiness you feel. The correlations actually show inverse levels of happiness, and increased levels of jealousy, inadequacy, selfishness, and competitiveness. Excessive materialism is also partnered with unhealthy realities like hoarding, addictive shopping, consumer debt and antisocial behavior.
According to the Journal of Consumer Research materialism is a consistent contributor to loneliness. When people value their possessions as a source of happiness or success, they experience more loneliness than people who use possessions as “material mirth”, or as a stepping stone to happiness. The difference is someone who says, “The act of buying this shirt makes me happy,” rather than, “This shirt makes me happy.” It’s not the item, it’s your relationship to acquiring the item. But even being honest about your shopping addiction can’t bring about true levels of happiness. As soon as the thrill of shopping is gone, a sense of loss can set in—leading to another shopping trip, and a spin in the cycle of materialism.
For purchases to actually make us fulfilled they need to provide a lasting improvement in our lives. Hence, society’s recent shift from stuff to sensations.
For purchases to actually make us fulfilled they need to provide a lasting improvement in our lives.
We are living in an experiential world, and I am an experiential girl
Americans of all ages, but especially Millennials, are moving their money from material items to experiences. A survey from Eventbrite found that 3 in 4 millennials (78 percent) choose to spend money on a desirable experience over buying something desirable with 59 percent of Baby Boomers in agreement. Perhaps this is because 94 percent of Millennials and 91 percent of Baby Boomers believe that experiences lead to a fulfilling life.
People tend to absorb experiential purchases into their own life stories, and get great pleasure out of sharing those stories with others. Would you rather hear someone talk about their Patagonia trekking adventure or their favorite Prada dress?
Also, according to the Journal of Consumer Psychology, experiences, rather than material items, can fulfill our basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Autonomy: when we participate in activities that reflect our self-identity and give us a feeling of directing our lives, we feel positive. This can be anything from camping alone to crowd surfing at Coachella—as long as you feel like the experience resonates with who you are at the core.
Competence: our sense of competency is satisfied when we use our skills and abilities as part of the experience. Think about the sense of accomplishment you might feel after a cooking class with friends.
Relatedness: perhaps most important in building well-being is the sense of belonging we get from sharing life experiences with others. From playing Halo with friends online to meeting coworkers for a sweatworking session, running with our tribe feels good. Good enough to spend money on it and still feel happy afterward.
These positive emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, can lead to feelings of happiness because they help us feel connected. Material items, on the other hand, are inherently meant to be owned, to set you the individual apart from others as a status symbol—not to connect with others. But until we are a society of blissful itinerants, purchasing products will still be a part of our lives. And, actually, when done thoughtfully, it can be the best of both worlds.
The in-between world of experiential products
“There are purchases that fall between material items and life experiences,” says the Journal of Consumer Psychology, in a January 2015 study. Part of the reason for the whole, “Buy experiences, not things,” movement is because consumer research has historically categorized purchases in two ways: material items as things “to have” and experiences as things “to do.” But this dichotomy paints all material things in a negative light. This recent study explores an in-between category of products that one “must have in order to do” known as experiential products. Your lucky tennis racket, the cowboy boots you wear to two-step, your bike—especially your bike—are all experiential products. These differ from material items in that they are vehicles for life experiences. Even that Prada dress can be elevated from an empty purchase if it’s closely tied to a meaningful experience—your 50th wedding anniversary, for example. Like a key that unlocks a more exciting part of our lives—we tend to look at these items less as material things and more as an extension of the experience they support.
Your lucky tennis racket, the cowboy boots you wear to two-step, your bike—especially your bike—are all experiential products.
We endow these items with personal value, which makes it so heartbreaking when they are lost to us. Take a bike, for instance. Is there any kind of thievery as universally reviled as bike theft? In cinema, we glamourize big heists, jewelry burglars, or car thieves, but bikes are almost too sacred to touch—unless it’s a tragedy. To steal a bike is not just taking a random thing. It’s stealing sunny afternoons with friends, transportation to work, an exercise plan, and someone’s identity. “It’s personal”, agrees ‘Bike Batman’, a Seattle-based engineer who devotes his free time to avenging people who’ve been robbed of a piece of themselves, “It feels really good to be able to reunite people with their bikes,” he said. “There are people that it means so much to. This hunk of steel and paint is worth much more than the price tag.” It’s hard to imagine that sort of emotional response to headphones, or a designer bag.
Owning experiential products—things that have real meaning in our lives— is a way to practice good materialism. It’s an investment in future experiences, and more chapters in your life story. On the other hand, if you bought a pair of red cleats seven years ago with the hope that you’d pick up intramural soccer, and they are still in the box, it might be time to cut your ties. Although the shoes would be an experiential product were you to play a game, without the experience, they go back to being material. Kind of like Cinderella’s pumpkin coach without its magic spell.
Good materialism: building better relationships with our things
What we can glean from these studies is: to have a healthy relationship with materialism, we need to have a healthy relationship with our material items. “It's important to understand your ownership pattern because it is an expression of the values that guide your life. The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” writes Marie Kondo in her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Kondo urges people to only keep things in their lives that “spark joy.” Otherwise, those items become weight keeping you and your happiness anchored. She also encourages people to look at their homes as a collection of “greatest hits”—the things that really tell your story. Anything that’s not part of your story should be given away or sold, so that it might be apart of someone else’s story.
Anything that’s not part of your story should be given away or sold, so that it might be apart of someone else’s story.
Setting up healthy relationships with our things isn’t easy but it also isn’t something altogether foreign. Look at the relationships and boundaries you’ve set up with food, money, and the people in your life. If “You are what you eat” holds true and “You are the company you keep” is gospel, perhaps it’s time to admit that, “You are the things you buy.” Being cognizant of the items entering your life can help you gain more control of your life overall.
Limit your purchases to things that spark joy. Whether that’s an experiential product or a shirt—as long as you know why you are buying it and how it will make your life richer. Read Kondo's Spark Joy for inspiration on filling your material relationships with meaning.
Understand how materialism affects your personal relationships. Admittedly it takes less effort to go on an online shopping spree than to meet a friend for coffee, but the latter is more likely to bring you fulfillment. Jonathan Munn took a radical approach to his materialism by giving away all but 100 of his personal items. Massive improvements to his personal relationships were the surprising result.
Try to live with less. Think about times you’ve been camping, or traveling, and living out of a suitcase. You didn’t need much to be happy because your life experiences fulfilled those needs. This way of life is called minimalism, and it’s going mainstream—see if it works for you.
Adopting good materialism
“Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life,” says Graham Hill in his TED talk, "Less stuff, more happiness". That’s true, but for the stuff we do buy, let’s make it matter. Because the truth is, materialism doesn’t always have to lead to unhappiness. And, for the record, sometimes it is OK to talk about politics at dinner.
Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.