The Happiness Project

Maybe People Are Materialistic. Is That a Bad Thing?

One thing I hear quite often is “It’s awful, people are so materialistic . They think that buying things can make them happy, but it can’t.”

Well, that statement contains more than one idea. The first is “Money can’t buy happiness.” True, money can’t buy happiness, but spent wisely, it can contribute mightily to a happy life .

The other idea is that people are too materialistic—meaning, I think, that people place too much value on owning things and showing them off to others in order to make an impression.

I’ve been mulling over that proposition. One of the subjects that has fascinated me for a very long time is the relationship of people to objects. I went through a long obsession with potlatch . I wrote a book, Profane Waste , examining why people would destroy their own possessions. I’ve read a lot of books about subjects like conspicuous consumption and self-identity through brands. I’m interested in anything to do with the symbolic meaning of particular objects (the Greek herm , for example), which is one reason I love Jung’s work.

So I’ve always been interested in this topic. But it seems to me that a lot of behavior that people consider “materialistic” is actually motivated not by a wish to boost self-esteem through stuff or to show off possessions to other people—in a “Keep up with the Joneses” kind of way—but by other reasons.

For example, take the guy who always buys the latest tech gadget – not from a desire to show that he can afford the most expensive new device but to feed his fascination with technology and perhaps also to maintain his reputation as a maven , the person to whom everyone can go for advice.

Take the couple who constantly renovate their house by adding a deck, adding a garden, putting in a new kitchen—not to show off to the neighbors, but as a way to get an atmosphere of growth in their lives. They see their house getting nicer, and that gives them satisfaction.

Take the person who buys beautiful furniture. My mother, who has a tremendous appreciation for objects and a huge amount of expertise on what gives objects quality, would appreciate and acquire beautiful furniture even if she were the last person on earth.

Clothes are a puzzle. Some people appreciate beautiful clothes for their own sake; it’s not all about making a display for other people, though that’s part of it, too. Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary : “I must remember to write about my clothes next time I have an impulse to write. My love of clothes interests me profoundly; only it is not love; and what it is I must discover.” Is this materialistic?

For better or worse, buying things is a way to engage with them and with the world. If you’re interested in a certain kind of object, you often express that interest by researching, shopping, and buying it. People who can’t afford art go to museums. But when people who like art can afford it, they usually want to buy art, too. People who love to cook want to buy elaborate tools and ingredients. People who love music want to buy music.

For some reason, we like to own the things we love, even when it’s not necessary. I’m interested in reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin only every so often, and the neighborhood library has three copies on its shelves—yet I want my own copy. Is that “materialistic?” (It will be interesting to see if the Internet will change this impulse, at least for books, movies, and music.)

It’s also true that when we have these things, we want to show them to other people. Is that always conspicuous consumption?

And objects can be necessary apparatus for other things we want to build into our lives, like exploration, acquisition of knowledge, and sense of security.

The word materialistic can be defined in various ways, of course, and some behavior is truly “materialistic” in the negative sense and not very admirable. But I think it’s a term that is thrown around a lot, to cover behavior that isn’t as deplorable as often assumed.

But I’m still thinking through this and not sure of my conclusions so far. The relationship between people and objects—an inexhaustibly fascinating topic. What angles am I overlooking?

* I love Lisa Belkin’s New York Times blog Motherlode , and I particularly appreciated this guest post by Laura Vanderkam, Are You Being Too Efficient? It struck a chord; my resolutions include Take time for projects and Force myself to wander .

* Check out the Happiness Project Toolbox ! If you want to get started with your own happiness project, you’ll find eight free tools that will help you. And it’s a lot of fun.