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3 Tips to Tame Your Materialism and Be Happier

Materialism can make you miserable, science shows. Here's how to weaken its grip on your life.
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When it comes to the clarity of the connection and scale of the negative impact, science is pretty clear that materialism is the smoking gun of the mental health world.

Study after study has shows that a focus on acquiring stuff makes you unhappy, hurts your relationships, increases your feelings of isolation and self-doubt, causes you to be less resilient in crises, and makes you more prone to mental illness. Plus, other research shows an excessive focus on material goods lessens citizenship and our sense of social responsibility--craving stuff isn't just bad for you then, it's also bad for the rest of us, too.

Fighting Back Against Materialism

None of which probably comes as a gigantic surprise to most people. Every wisdom tradition under the sun (and probably your dear, old grandmother, too) warns against an excessive focus on accumulating wealth and pursuing status through flash stuff. But the truth of the matter is that we live in a society that's deeply saturated with messages and images that nudge us towards the idea that a valuable life entails having valuable things. Is it possible to fight back?

Yes, says a fascinating recent article in Scientific American, detailing research by psychology professor Tim Kasser and others. In one of a series of studies conducted by the team, an intervention designed to encourage less of a focus on materialistic goals was tested on teenagers. Compared with a control group, those who participated in the program "became less materialistic and had higher self-esteem over the next several months," Tori Rodriguez reports in SI. Materialism, in other words, can be conquered, or at least lessened, through conscious effort.

So if you'd like to dial back your worries over what you do (and do not) own, while clarifying and recommitting to your values for better mental health, what does Kasser suggest? The article offers some suggestions, including:

  • Track your exposure to advertising. One reason it's so hard to keep our materialism under control is the constant presence of advertising designed specifically to stoke it. To get a better handle on the impact of all those ads, Kasser suggests keeping track of every ad you're exposed to for four days. Use this (probably difficult) experience to reflect on the effect of advertising and its role in our society.
  • Write out your values. Few of us would explicitly say that we value material goods over other things in life, so return your focus to what's truly important to you by taking time to reflect on your values. Write down your thoughts and how (or if) your behavior lines up to your most deeply held beliefs.
  • Monitor your spending. This is usually recommended as a budgeting exercise, but Kasser insists it can also be a good way to get a handle on your materialism. Track every penny you spend for a month, and then take a hard look at whether your spending reflects your values. If it doesn't, think about what's driving you to behave as you do: insecurity? the need to impress? peer pressure?

Are you concerned about the materialistic messages we're all bombarded with?

Last updated: Aug 13, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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