The High Price of Materialism, by Tim Kasser

I found the series of articles at Happiness: has social science a clue? very challenging and I have re-visited them several times. The chief message I got from these is that people are made unhappy not by absolute poverty but by relative poverty: if you live in a one bedroom house you might be perfectly happy, so long as everyone else is in the same type of accommodation. But if everyone else has a three-bed semi, you'll feel unhappy. This book has a similar but slightly different emphasis on the link between money and happiness.

There is a lot of evidence presented in this book that once you have enough to live, extra money doesn't do much good in terms of raising your happiness level. But the book goes further than this, in suggesting that the pursuit of money is what makes you unhappy. Tons of research data are provided in support of this hypothesis, some of it the result of the author's own studies. At the start of the book, the author states "what stands out across the studies is a simple fact: people who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and posessions report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims" (p5).

The book cites data showing that "materialistic values increase when environmental circumstances fail to support needs for security and safety" (p37). Maslow's heirarchy of needs places "self-actualisation" as the psychological need that people have once their basic needs (food, shelter, security etc.) are met. In western societies, people generally have enough money to satisfy their basic needs, so what they are looking for is something that will satisfy that top need. But the consumer culture is based on encouraging people to believe that their needs will be satisfied by buying or using certain products. And since in fact these products don't satisfy the need for self-actualisation, the promises made by the advertisements are empty, and leave people (in the long term) feeling less, rather than more, happy when they acquire the goods but don't feel satisfied.

He's quite "down" on TV. "People with a strong materialistic orientation were likely to watch a lot of television...and have a low life satisfaction" (p55). He points out that commercials encouraging you to be individual and "have it your way" depend on the fact that lots of people will all respond in the same way. One of the aspects of motivation he talks about is "flow" - which applies to acts that are fulfilling, challenging and provide a sense of autonomy, as opposed to acts which are done for the sake of reward, or as a result of perceived pressure or coercion. "When participants were asked about the types of activities that brought them feelings of flow, watching television was rarely mentioned" (p81-82).

There is a lot of research data presented, and it certainly points to there being a very strong correlation between materialistic values and unhappiness. There is only one study in the book where a causal link is suggested - in this one, participants were asked to write a story either about their own death or about a piece of music. Subsequently, those who'd written about death became more materialistic. Apart from this, he seems a bit too eager to see cause and effect - e.g. he says at one point "What is it about materialistic values that leads to such difficulties in relationships?" (p64) without showing that one thing is actually caused by the other.

Many of the studies in this book correlate peoples' measurements on an "aspiration index" to other measurements of personality, and by doing this it is shown that people with materialistic values are less happy, have less fulfilling personal relationships, care less about the community and environment, and have lower levels of self-esteem. However, I can't help feeling that perhaps these studies are all just measuring the same thing and so can't fail to find "correlations".

The final chapter on the book has suggestions as to how to counter the materialist influence. I think the most useful is "think about the contents of the book and reflect on whether it applies to you".

While I am very sympathetic to the overall thesis of the book, I can't help but feel that the author has made up his mind and supports his opinion with data that is either selective or anecdotal (e.g. he reports on the the way that dream themes are different for people who are more materialistic). But, a useful source of hard information about the links between money and happiness.

Completed : 24-Jan-2004

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