Unless your friends and loved ones gave you backrub coupons for the holidays, you’ve probably found yourself wading through an apartment swamped with a tide of new things. These gadgets and whatsits may be reminders of the people who care about you, but an over-reliance on material goods can lead to very little fulfillment, if any at all.
Psychologist Tim Kasser, from Knox College, sat down with the American Psychological Association back in mid-December to talk about what consumerism does to the human mind. We missed the story back then, when we were distracted by selfie sticks and Celebrate Christmas™ Yankee Candles, but his findings still bear repeating: Leading a materialistic life can lead to depression, antisocial behavior, severe guilt, and other negative qualities.
It’s not possessing things that does the damage — rather, it’s that prioritizing money, possessions, and image (the three horsemen of the tried-and-true materialist) makes you a nastier human being.
According to Kasser, here are three things that happen when you start caring more about stuff than relationships. Or, you know, the reality of climate change.
1. You’re more likely to be a bad friend.
We know from research that materialism tends to be associated with treating others in more competitive, manipulative and selfish ways, as well as with being less empathetic. Such behavior is usually not appreciated by the average person, although it is encouraged by some aspects of our capitalist economic system.
2. Materialism sucks up your money and mind-space.
We know from the literature that materialism is associated with lower levels of well-being, less pro-social interpersonal behavior, more ecologically destructive behavior, and worse academic outcomes. It also is associated with more spending problems and debt. From my perspective, all of those are negative outcomes.
3. You’ll be distracted from what your real needs are.
The most supported explanation for why well-being is lower when materialism is high concerns psychological needs. Specifically, materialistic values are associated with living one’s life in ways that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs to feel free, competent and connected to other people. When people do not have their needs well-satisfied, they report lower levels of well-being and happiness, as well as more distress.
Turning off your compulsion to buy massive quantities of unnecessary doodads and trinkets isn’t just about being a happier person and a better friend. It’s also about, very literally, not buying into an economic model that is hurting the planet, and egging on climate change.
So how do we break out of materialism and into something that’s healthier for our minds and the planet? Grist’s very own David Roberts spent time (some of it in a hammock, we hope) thinking on the subject. To offer a positive counterpoint to the list of how your obsession with things is ruining you, here are three ways to live a happier, less thingfull existence.
1. Spend time with other people, easy as that.
We live longer, healthier, happier lives when we are at the center of overlapping social networks, when we have a devoted life partner, close family and friends (and pets), extensive “weak ties” with acquaintances and colleagues, peer and professional networks that value our skills, and a sense of autonomy balanced with a sense of involvement in something larger than ourselves. We are happiest when we have a place in the world, when we love and are loved, when we make the most of our gifts.
2. Appreciate what you’ve got. Even if it doesn’t include those designer shoes.
Gratitude and joy are emotions we can muster when we don’t feel threatened, when our lizard brain calms and our prefrontal cortex takes over. But it’s very difficult when our egos feel under siege. Relationships are more meaningful the more we open and extend ourselves (and are reciprocated), but our degree of openness is also our degree of vulnerability. Often we close off, deciding, consciously or not, that it’s not worth the risk of getting hurt; our lizard-brain fear overpowers us.
3. So what do you do when don’t have as many worthless things any more? Face your issues, and chill out.
We can learn to detach from fear and anger, to let them go, to take deep breaths, return our focus to the present, and choose positive emotions. That … is what mindfulness is all about. It’s what the entire discipline of positive psychology … strengthening the prefrontal cortex so that it’s more able to override instinctual fear and anger. The more inclement the circumstances we face, the more we need it.