Book Review: The High Price of Materialism

A couple of weeks ago I saw a book in the semi-weekly newsletter that I get from MIT Press called “The High Price of Materialism” (buy on MIT Press, Amazon) (oops, now that I look I actually added it to my wishlist back in June) Anyway, I finished it tonight and wanted to note a couple tidbits.

It’s a great book on alot of different levels; it makes you think about your own life, your motivations, where you spend your time and might even influence how you make big decisions about oh, say, an election for instance. Since I’m horrible at writing summaries and because someone else already took the time to do it on the back of the book, I’ll just quote that: “Other writers have shown that once we have sufficient food, shelter and clothing, further materialistic gains do little to improve our well-being. But Kasser goes beyond these findings to investigate how people’s materialistic desires relate to their well-being. He shows that people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material posessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy — regardless of age, income, or culture.”

Other interesting snippets:

In regards to an experiment which “.. women who viewed the advertisements with models reported less satisfaction with their own attractiveness, but did not differ from the control group in self-ratings of how attractive they thought themselves to be. This suggests that the ads did not change the women’s assessment of their actual attractiveness, but raised their ideals about attractiveness in general… The results suggest that decreased life satisfcation could be a side effect of frequent exposure to all the different types of idealized images in the media, whether for cards, furniture, or baby powder.” (page 56) We’re in a society full of ads, one wonders what ‘frequent exposure’ is. But more importantly, remember that viewing advertisements pecks away at your soul.

The summary of chapter 5 (called ‘Fragile Self-Worth): “When people and nations make progress in their materialistic ambitions, they may experience some temporary improvement of mood, but it is likely to be short lived and superficial. Furthermore, some of the psychological dynamics related to the strong pursuit of materialistic goals (problems with self-esteem and discrepancies) keep individuals’ well-being from improving as their wealth and status increase. The sad truth is that when people feel the emptiness of either material success or failure, they often persist in thinking that more will be better, and thus continue to strive for what will never make them happier. (page 59)

“Political scientist Robert E. Lane similarly commented that people in capitalistic countries suffer ‘a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relationships, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solid family life.’ What these and other thinkers note is that materialistic values ‘crowd out’ other meaningful pursuits, as the time we spend earning and consuming often means neglect of our spouses, children, friends and community.” (page 61) Purely anecdotal evidence, but since we moved into our new house, we’ve met the couple across the street and the lady next door. No one else stopped in to say ‘hi, welcome to the neighborhood!’. I’m sure suburbia has something to do that it and maybe some of the burden lies on us to the same thing.

“… when consumption, possessions, and money become our primary aims, we become less concerned with fully understanding others’ subjective experience, feelings, and desires. Instead, others become objects and thus lose their value as people. In the materialist mindset, people exist largely to reflect well on ourselves and to be used and manipulated to obtain what we want.” (page 68)

This next piece was extremely interesting and probably much more relevant to readers of this blog, the heading is “Materialism, Intrinsic Motivation, and Flow“. “If individuals place a low value on freedom and self-expression, they will be unlikely to construct their lives in a manner that enhances their chances of having autonomous and authentic experiences… values bleed over into people’s experiences, enhancing or detracting from them.

One experience from which materialistic values detract is the sort that some thinkers consider the pinnacle of autonomy and self-expression…. it occurs when an individual is doing something for no other purpose than the sheer joy, interest, and challenge involved. A great example intrinsic motivation is children’s play, but it can also be seen in any number of adult activities, such as climbing mountains, painting pictures, hiking in the woods, and even writing books. People can also feel flow or intrinsic motivation in nonleisure activities, such as their work or conversations they have with others. what is required is that people pursue activities for what the activities themselves have to offer, not for rewards or praise.” Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’ve felt the flow; it usually hits me late at night (not recently) when I’m working on a pet project that has no chance of making a dime. I think the entire open source movement can readily relate to the above paragraph and it points to why programmers on Slashdot are so passionate about freedom of speech and self-expression. In some sense, the open source movement isn’t about money and never will be. It’s about meeting a basic psychological need for self expression and autonomy… it’s about being authentic. But wait, it gets better. Tim goes on to say rewards (monetary, praise, etc..) actually decrease our intrinsic motivation. In other words, once you start to get paid to work on an open source project, it’s very possible that it won’t be as fun as it once was. (page 76-77)

So if ‘flow’ is good, how do we maximize the amount of time we spend in the flow? “Studies … have found that watching television involves very little challenge; instead it causes people to feel zoned out or apathetic… Shopping is another example of a low-flow activity encouraged by materialistic values… Working long hours and amassing debt are other activities encouraged by materialistic values that must surely involve little in the way of intrinsic satisfaction.” (page 81-82)

The cure? “Many thinkers in other fields have propounded the benefits of values such as growing as a person, knowing and accepting oneself, caring about family and friends, and helping the community and world be a better place. The importance of these values can also be recognized in a contemporary social movement called Voluntary Simplicity, a growing trend for people to abandon the high-paying, high-stress lifestyle necessary to support high levels of consumption, and focus instead on personal growth, nurturing relationships, and helping others.” (page 99)

Stop and smell the flowers today.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The High Price of Materialism”

  1. Aaron,
    Excellent post. It’s important to remember why we’re here and why we do what we do. As a software engineer, I find it easy to be intrigued by the latest technological gadget. But lately I’ve stopped to ask myself whether the current gadget will really improve my life. Will the time spent paying for and maintaining the gadget really be worth it? And what about the impact on the environment? We technologists need to be wary of technology for technology’s sake.

    Another good point you raised is the seduction of advertising and shopping. We need to remember that companies exist for one reason only: to make money. They’re not really interested in your happiness. They’re just interested in selling you something (that they will tell you will make you happy). If you watch commercials carefully, you’ll notice that most of them are not touting the actual benefits of their products. Rather, they try to make you feel good about something; e.g., taking good care of your family, or freedom from the rat-race. Ironically, many of these commercials are trying to sell you the notion that their product will cure many of the very ills that our consumer culture creates.

    In recent years, I’ve made it a point to isolate myself from advertising as much as possible. I don’t watch commercials on TV, not even with the sound off. I delete email ads aggressively (even the non-spam ones). I largely ignore ads in the newspaper and magazines. I try to make sure that when I buy something, it’s something I genuinely want.

    And here’s a practical tip for avoiding unnecessary spending: never buy anything the first time you think of it. Wait a while and see if it still sounds good the next day or next week.

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