After my interview last week with Doug Cartwright, the subject of trying to find happiness through material things stuck in my mind. When I was young, I definitely believed that the more money I had or the more things I could buy, the happier I would be. That turned out not to be true, but I’m not sure there’s a way to really learn that without experiencing it for yourself, which means we may have to learn it the hard way. To be clear, I’m not talking about basic necessities. If you’re poor, and I’ve been there myself, money and material goods are important because we can’t be happy if we don’t have a roof over our heads or food on the table. What I’m talking about here though is acquiring things to achieve happiness and that’s looking for happiness in all of the wrong places.
Life satisfaction is our cognitive evaluation of our life as a whole and is an important component of happiness and well-being. Overall life satisfaction is a function of how satisfied we are in a number of areas in our lives including family, friends, health, residence, job, finances, self, and the amount of fun and enjoyment we experience.
As most of us have been negatively impacted in several of these life domains over the past couple of years, it’s important to note that dissatisfaction in any one area affects one or more of the other areas. If you’re dissatisfied with your health for example, that could negatively impact the family, friends, job and even residence domains in your life. If you’re dissatisfied with your financial situation, that could spill over into the amount of fun and enjoyment you experience or negatively impact your sense of self. Ultimately, dissatisfaction in any area of life could impact your overall life satisfaction.
Research has clearly demonstrated a strong link between materialism and dissatisfaction with life. Those high in materialism view material possessions as the path to happiness. I was definitely a victim of keeping up with the Jones’ for quite a few years. And I thought it did make me happy, but only for short periods of time. I’d buy a fancy gizmo for the kitchen and marvel at it for a week or so. Then the feeling wore off and I’d go off in search of something else that would impress my friends and make me feel good about my success.
Materialism is about the importance we place on material possessions, from shoes to houses, and it’s becoming increasingly common as we’re bombarded with messages to condition us to believe that all of this stuff will make us happy. It’s even seeping into our culture in the form of holidays in the United States, as in Black Friday and Cyber Monday which many people excitedly anticipate as much as a traditional holiday.
Studies show that materialists have unrealistically high expectations for the satisfaction that material goods will bring them. Prior to making a purchase, they experience higher levels of expectation and anticipatory positive emotion than non-materialists. But the purchase is ultimately unable to meet those expectations, leading to a decline of the original high experienced when the item was purchased. In order to maintain positive emotions, the search begins for a new purchase, resulting in chronic dissatisfaction and potential decreases in psychological states that are important for well-being.
Materialism may also affect our self-esteem. Rather than getting self-worth from our accomplishments or unique traits, we may feel valuable based on what we own, whether a fancy car, a luxurious home, or an expensive purse. In addition to this cycle of buying, feeling the high, and feeling the low leading to buying again, there are other ramifications for many people, including shopping addiction, hoarding and increased debt.
As I mentioned, I don’t think anyone who is lacking in material goods is going to believe me or anyone else who might suggest we all stop buying stuff. But before you run out and buy a shiny new car and before that new car smell wears off and you start searching for a fancier car, I would suggest taking a pause. Just check in on why you’re making the purchase. There’s nothing wrong with buying things if we’re doing so mindfully. If you’re buying something you desire because you like it or because it’s functional and you can afford it, well, why not? But if you’re buying it to fill a feeling of discomfort or to impress other people, take another pause because you could be stepping into a cycle that leads to life dissatisfaction.
If you’re currently stuck in a materialism rut but don’t feel you can get out of it because of the very real negative psychological impact it could have or because you’re afraid to look unsuccessful or because you’ve got a shopping addiction, there is a very gentle way to shift your life dissatisfaction to a healthier position and it’s not hard at all. It's gratitude.
In contrast to materialism, gratitude is a positive emotion that is experienced when we perceive that something or someone has intentionally given us a valued benefit. In some ways, gratitude and materialism can be thought of as conceptual opposites. Materialism focuses on self, whereas gratitude necessitates a focus on others. Materialistic goals are related to a focus on possessions that we want but don’t have, while gratitude is related to an attitude of savoring what we already have. Gratitude has been shown to diminish the relationship between materialism and life dissatisfaction by changing our frame of reference.
Instead of trying to stop shopping, we could instead focus on what we’re grateful for in our lives. As you shop, think about what there is to be grateful for about the item you’re considering purchasing. If you purchase it, be grateful for the people who made it or the person who sold it to you. Take a look at what you’ve already purchased and consider how grateful you are for those things and why.
For example, I bought a new sofa about 8 months into the pandemic. It’s very pretty, but that’s not what I’m grateful for about it. It’s very comfortable which encourages me to slow down and take a break. A year and a half later, I still savor that sofa every day. Conversely, I drive an old car and am very grateful that it gets me from point a to point b without a car payment. I realize at some point I will have to break down (or more likely, it will break down) and I’ll have to buy a replacement, but when I take that pause and consider a new car purchase right now, I have trouble finding gratitude. That tells me that a new shiny car will not make me happy right now, so much to my family and friends’ chagrin, the clunker stays.
Research suggests that there are many benefits to practicing gratitude, including decreased anxiety and depression, increased vitality, optimism, hope and life satisfaction, all of which increases our sense of well-being. Gratitude can help us become more aware of pleasant events in our lives. When we notice negative events, gratitude helps prevent excessive rumination. Gratitude helps us positively reframe events that may seem negative on the surface. It even enhances social ties, which we know improves our well-being.
A gratitude practice can improve our overall life satisfaction in all of the domains involved but it is a practice. There are several easy ways to strengthen your gratitude skills, such as silently saying thank you at every opportunity. If you find a dime on the sidewalk, say thank you. If someone let’s you into a traffic lane, thank you. A hot shower, a sunny day, a good laugh, a job well done, a good meal, a pretty view, a green traffic light, an available parking space – thank you, thank you, thank you.
A scientifically proven way to increase gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Each day, write down at least three things you’re grateful for and your brain will catch on and start looking for more things to feel grateful for. You’ll feel a difference in your overall mood within just a few days.
I also say thank you when I wake up each morning. Really, some day I won’t so I’m grateful each morning to be here, to have another day to explore, work, live and love. As we learn to appreciate the miracle that we’re here at all and to feel gratitude for what we already have, that uncomfortable void we experience begins to diminish and we start fulfilling our lives from the inside out instead of seeking happiness from the outside in.
Thornton Wilder said, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” Wise words indeed if we want to experience more satisfaction with our lives.