Book review: The high price of materialism

“Excessive consumption is usually the last refuge for those people, who live a tedious life and they don’t even have hope that it will be better someday. The accumulation of material wealth is a self-expression for those who have no other means to express their decisions, having their lives in their own hands and being a unique creature.  Materialism is the substitute of a life lived entirely;” (part of Csikszentmihalyi’s foreword for Tim Kasser’s book: The high price of materialism, 2005, Claremont, California)

Though Tim Kasser’s book was published almost 15 years ago, its content cannot be more actual than now in the realm of daily advancing technology and advertisements pouring at us from every corner of life. Facing the fact that wifi wasn’t a basic need and people weren’t attached to their smartphones (the first smartphone came out in 2007) back in 2002, one might think, that things got even worse since then.

Materialism as per Kasser’s definition is such value that includes the importance of money, property, image and status. It is a kind of belief about what’s important in life, what makes us happy, what are the factors of success, and this is reflected in our attitudes and in our behaviors as well. He compares the value system to a great pie: each and every value (spirituality, family, friends, indulgence and also materialism) is a slice of this pie. The problem is rather caused when we focus on the latter and it becomes an important part of the personality and life. Meanwhile, the pie itself remains the same, the slice of materialism grows and the others get smaller. Therefore materialism leads to lower well-being because the so-called internal and intrinsic values lose ground. Those are such values as personal growth, family, close relationships with friends or even helping others. These contribute the most to people’s happiness.

The positive aspect of materialism depends on our interest. If it is people’s welfare or encouraging helpful behavior, then it has none. If our goal is economic growth, selling or motivating by external rewards then it has. This accurately describes capitalism. As I mentioned earlier, materialism is a component of the human value system (a slice of the pie – because of evolutionary reasons) so it might have an advantageous side as well. If we look at the human race, we can find that we are not too strong, not too big, not even have as good senses as animals have, but we are great at using tools. When we were afraid, we used stones to protect ourselves. Later on, we realized how to plant and created agriculture, which was actually the foundation of civilization. Thus, these external, extrinsic values provided us security. Kasser thinks that materialism helped us to survive in this way. In addition, we are primates and it is associated with status-orientation which is we often define with our belongings. The problem today is that there are 7 billion of us on earth right now and society considers the constant buying, the ability to reaching everything with a click as an important value. For this reason, we can call materialism to be harmful.

While too much emphasis on materialistic values tends to damage people’s well-being, they cannot have a high-quality life, if their needs are not satisfied.

Kasser has identified four needs that are necessary for human survival, growth, and optimal functioning. These are:

  1. safety, security, and sustenance – the human desire to remain alive and to avoid early death;
  2. competence, efficacy, and self-esteem – the human desire to demonstrate inherent positive attributes in oneself that propels one to accomplish one’s missions, goals and objectives;
  3. connectedness – the human desire for intimacy and closeness with other humans – the desire for belonging; and
  4. autonomy and authenticity – a desire for freedom to act on one’s own and to have a feeling that one is self-directed. One is striving for more and more freedom to acquire life experiences of their choice, so one can become authentic and credible.

Materialistic values become dominant in those people’s life who have failed to adequately fulfill their livelihood and security needs in the past. He found that highly materialistic people always feel a gap between their current state and what they would like to become and achieve. They tend to watch more TV and thus they embrace the desirable ideals of wealth and beauty.

Materialistic values hinder our spiritual well-being in four different ways:

  1. maintain the sense of uncertainty 
  2. we are forced to asseverate that we are clever, able to do things and effective
  3. affect our relationships with others and
  4. reduce our personal freedom – blocks achieving our needs of authenticity and autonomy

The highly materialistic people tend to focus on the rewards rather than what they enjoy, what interests them and what could be a challenge for them. Such an attitude significantly impedes reliving and enjoyment of being in FLOW. Those activities and behaviors that are spurred by materialistic values rarely lead us to experience FLOW.

Kasser also took into account the principles of a possible alternative to materialistic approach:

We need to reduce the institutional acceptance and dissemination of materialistic values.

  • we should avoid those activities and situations in which we are likely to see a lot of materialistic messages
  • we can work on to remove the materialistic messages from our social environment, so those are less prevalent
  • we can work on to change the laws and policies that support and encourage pursuing materialistic goals and the proliferation of messages that encourage us to become materialistic

We have to make people resistant against materialistic activities, values, and influences.

  • we have to teach people to approach advertisements and other commercial messages more critically. We have to understand how media manipulates our perceptions, feelings, and beliefs.
  • we have to create healthier values for ourselves. We have to focus on “intrinsic” values because gratifying those are leading us to health and spiritual development, and people tend to follow them for their own sake.
    There are 3 categories of “intrinsic” values:
    personal development (eg.: “I am going to follow my interest and curiosity wherever it leads me”)
    relationships (eg.: “I am going to live in a committed, intimate relationship”)
    a sense of community (eg.: I am going to help to make the world a better place”)

We need to increase the likelihood that people will consistently behave on the basis of a healthier and opposing of materialistic inner values.

  • If intrinsic values worth more for people, they less likely pursue materialistic values. Those people who abide intrinsic values reported having better well-being, and they are acting socially and ecologically in a more useful and more sustainable way.
  • While pursuing material well-being (ie: external, materialistic goals) people’s lives are hectic, overcrowded, so they barely have time to follow their “intrinsic” (inner) values. People need time for the growth of their human personality, to cultivate a proper connection with their family and friends and to contribute somewhat to the functioning of their host community. People who work less, tend to be more satisfied with their lives and also leave a smaller carbon footprint behind.

What can be a final conclusion?

Our societies growing and ubiquitous consumer approach cause a huge damage to people’s lives, social solidarity and ecological resources on which the previous two factors depend. Though forces that encourage materialism and consumption often appear irresistible, we can successfully weaken the influence of materialistic attitudes, if we help them to build up resistance against such extrinsic values and to act more in line with their healthier values. Organizations that build their work on values and pursuing to fit their operation to the term of “Good Business” are making a huge step toward to promising a brighter future for ourselves, for our children and also for other species. The future belongs to those who lead their own and others’ lives based on values.