Can Materialism Be a Good Thing?

“Products For You,” “Sponsored Post,” “Add To Cart,” “Buy Now!” All of these are used in Instagram’s new shopping focused update. The tab Instagram added for shopping took many people off guard at first but the backlash quickly dwindled as people accepted it as a way to streamline their purchasing habits. This update not only streamlined our buying habits, though, it also wove a net between interacting with our friends online and being pushed to keep consuming goods-predominantly fashion. Although this update seems like nothing more than a nuisance to have to scroll through a few extra sponsored shopping posts and go to a different tab to check a picture’s likes, I believe our complacency to this change proves that many people don’t understand or care that materialism is a morally wrong practice. 

But why is materialism bad?

Materialism is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a doctrine that the only or the highest values or objectives lie in material well-being and in the furtherance of material progress” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). This essentially means that while some people find values and purpose from religion or from a philosophical standpoint, people who are materialistic find their value and a sense of purpose in accumulating stuff. 

Why do people find value in buying stuff?

According to Ryan T. Howell from Psychologytoday.com, the reasoning behind materialism may be a link between someone’s geographical and sociocultural surroundings and their desire to ‘fit in’. “People who live in more affluent areas are vulnerable to this implicit social comparison-if you see other people spending a lot of money, you feel a need to live up to that standard. Because of this, you end up buying a lot of material items, often on impulse, even though they don’t actually make you happier” (Howell, Psychology Today).

This idea that a constant exposure to material things fuels desire to engage in materialism can be proven by the effectiveness of advertisements. Scrolling through Instagram, you can find a multitude of advertisements for various things the algorithm thinks you would like to buy and if that’s not enough, there’s even an extra tab on Instagram for recommended shopping. Constant exposure to new things combined with seeing people on social media wearing or using these things is enough of a social incentive to make many people buy more things to meet this new standard. 

What’s wrong with wanting to buy new things if you can afford them, though?

The desire to buy new things and update current possessions doesn’t sound like horrible, in theory, as there are much worse things people could find values and a purpose from. Besides, if materialism makes some people happy, even for a moment, maybe it’s a good thing after all. 

According to the Dalai Lama, however, “The demarcation between a positive and negative desire or action is not whether it gives you an immediate feeling of satisfaction but whether it ultimately results in positive or negative consequences” (Lama, The Art of Happiness, pg. 28). 

While people may receive a fleeting sense of purpose from buying something, there can be long-term negative side effects of using materialism as one’s measure of value. “…depression, social anxiety, decreased subjective well-being, less psychological satisfaction, and other undesirable outcomes have all been linked with materialistic values and purchasing behaviors” (Howell, Psychology Today). Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychology professor, teaches that there is an opportunity cost associated with materialistic pursuit. “When people spend their effort pursuing material goods in the belief that they will bring happiness, they’re ignoring other, more effective routes to happiness” (Goldberg, NY Times). 

What does he mean by opportunity cost?

An opportunity cost is defined as “the added cost of using resources that is the difference between the actual value resulting from such use and that of an alternative” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). More simply put, it’s choosing to use resources on one thing over another. In terms of materialism, this could be choosing to spend a hard-earned paycheck on a pair of Off-White Nike Air-Force’s instead of using it to go on a trip or save up for a house. Another example of this could be spending most of the day searching Instagram for the latest fashion trends to purchase instead of spending that time with family or learning a new skill. Opportunity costs aren’t about a choice between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, they’re merely about deciding which option is a better use of your resources; in these examples, the resources are ‘time’ and ‘money’. 

Despite the ambiguity of opportunity costs in relation to good and bad, however, the Dalai Lama writes in his book The Art of Happiness, “Excessive desire leads to greed-an exaggerated form of desire, based on over-expectation” (Lama, The Art of Happiness, pg. 28). He asserts that as an action is defined by its consequences, the actions of excessive buying and desire have negative consequences that are associated with greed. 

Although buying a new shirt or a new speaker doesn’t seem to be inherently bad, the purpose behind the desire to purchase defines whether it is bad or not. The fleeting pleasure associated with purchasing something new does not cause long-term happiness and when excessively practiced results in greed, which leads to long-term negative effects such as decreased well-being and unhappiness. Opportunity costs are a measure that can be used to determine whether a purchase is necessary or not by weighing its true value; purchases or time spent shopping can cost a person a lot depending on how materialistic they are. Materialism as a value and sense of purpose is ultimately a negative thing, no matter how sustainably or ethically the items being purchased are made.

 

Sources

Goldbery, C. (2006). Materialism is Bad for you, Studies Say. Retrieved from nytimes.com.

Howell, R. (2014). What Causes Materialism in America? Retrieved from psychologytoday.com. 

Lama, D & Cutler, H. (2009). The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living. 

Photo retrieved from www.womenontopp.com.

 

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