Don’t buy into materialism myth: true happiness cannot be bought

By Dan Mollison

As holiday sales stretch earlier and earlier into the year, many have wondered what effects America’s increase in materialism has been having on our nation’s children.

In a study recently conducted by Lan Nguyen Chaplin, a professor of marketing at the University, researchers asked children to rate the value they placed on materialistic objects such as “stuffed animals,” “money” and “sports equipment,” and compared these responses with how the children rated non-materialistic sentiments like “being with friends,” “being good at sports” and “helping others.” Researchers also evaluated the self-esteem of the children and compared the results.

A report recently released by Chaplin documenting the results of her study reveals that self-esteem is a key factor in a child’s level of materialism. Simply put, children who have low self-esteem tend to value material possessions more than children who don’t. While this study focused on youth, its findings speak to a greater reality that all of us living in a materialistic society, regardless of age, must face.

I come from an upper-middle class suburb of Chicago, so I’m no stranger to materialism. I went to school with teenagers who, after totaling the new Mercedes their parents had provided for them on their sixteenth birthday, were lovingly offered another. And I have been well acquainted with those who have had so much that, with nothing else left to satisfy them, they developed drug dependencies to provide the stimulation they thirsted for. We might be tempted to criticize these people for squandering the advantages they were born with. After all, most of us probably wouldn’t mind having that first Mercedes.

But Chaplin’s report explains why waste and drug use happens at all among the economically privileged: because the more we value money, the unhappier we become. I learned this lesson firsthand when I was a child growing up. I have a very determined nature, and while my parents were very good about setting limits for me, I was often very persistent in trying to get what I wanted anyway. Sometimes, though, I took things too far. One time I was at Best Buy with my mother and I saw that a video game I had really wanted was on sale. I asked her for it, and she said no. I felt agitated.

Why couldn’t she get the game for me? It’s not like she didn’t have the money. I continued to plead with her, and as she kept saying no, I felt more and more out of control. My infuriated mother finally dragged me out of the store. It would be easy to point at me in that store and think, “What a spoiled brat!” Looking back, I certainly have had those thoughts. But while being selfish hurts others, it hurts ourselves even more.

When you look at some material object and your desire for it is so strong that the thought of not having it is upsetting, then you are truly powerless before it. At that moment, it owns you, not the other way around. And there is nothing worse than feeling that you are not in control of your own happiness. Materialism causes us to lose touch with ourselves and with who we are in the world, and this is how it breeds unhappiness.

Many of us have rolled our eyes at the saying that “money can’t buy happiness,” but the good news within this message is that happiness is a choice we can make, not something we simply fall into. It means that whether I have one dollar in the bank or millions, the only one who has any control over how I feel is me. And I can choose to be happy, right now, by embracing what really matters in life.