Materialism vs. Self-Esteem

Unbridled materialism and consumerism have always been topics that interest me.  Numerous studies have shown that money can’t buy happiness, yet it’s the basis of the economic model in “rich” countries.  The Daily Galaxy has posted an interesting article titled The Consumer Paradox: Scientists Find that Low Self-Esteem and Materialism Goes Hand in Hand.  From the article:

“By the time children reach early adolescence, and experience a decline in self-esteem, the stage is set for the use of material possessions as a coping strategy for feelings of low self-worth,” they write in the study, which will appear in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The paradox that findings such as these bring up, is that consumerism is good for the economy but bad for the individual. In the short run, it’s good for the economy when young people believe they need to buy an entirely new wardrobe every year, for example. But the hidden cost is much higher than the dollar amount. There are costs in happiness when people believe that their value is extrinsic. There are also environmental costs associated with widespread materialism.

On the topic of happiness, the article mentions the following:

In the book “Happiness: Lessons From a New Science”, Richard Layard exposes a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most of us want more income so we can consume more. Yet as societies become richer, they do not become happier. In fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe and Japan.

Statistically people have more things than they did 50 years ago, but they are actually less happy in several key areas. There is also the considerable cost of what materialism does to the environment. We don’t yet know what final toll that could take in terms of quality of life and overall happiness. What many people don’t understand is that if we want to save the environment then at some level we have to buy and consume less. We don’t need to buy so much bottled water, for example. Studies have shown it’s usually not any purer than city tap water, which doesn’t leave mountains of plastic bottles strewn across the nations landfills. It also wastes energy and resources to make those plastic bottles and the many other unnecessary things that both youth and adults alike believe they need to have in order to enjoy life and feel good about themselves.

I’m happy to see the bottled water example.  Add in SUVs and other unacceptably wasteful uses of the money (not to mention the environmental effects), and hopefully the paradox is quite evident.  It’s really difficult to get off of the materialism treadmill.  Personally, I find myself actively resisting the urge to buy “better” (i.e., more expensive) things, even though I can easily afford them.  Few people, it seems, would ever be satisfied with any level of possessions.

For anyone that’s more interested in the topic (and a fun read), I highly recommend Barry Schwarz’s book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.  I’m cautiously optimistic that people in the United States will one day realize this.  It might not be good for the stock market, at least in the short run, but I think we’d all be much happier.


1 Comment

  1. lemurean said,

    May 19, 2009 at 11:02 pm

    I’ve thought about this too and I think the reason why is because people with low self esteem feel themselve to be of little value, so they need something expensive that other people want to make them feel important.

    I’m new to Word Press so I have still have the basic layout but I just wrote an essay from a different angle about why things are what you wrote about here. But my essay was more about how commercialism brainwashes people to be unhappy so they would go out and buy something to make them happy.

    Here is a link to it.

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