Materialism: What’s With Wanting So Much Stuff Anyway?

“You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Steven Wright


When times are hard, my husband and I tend to quote a few lines from an old movie called “The Jerk.”  Lines like, “All I need is this lamp and this chair, that’s all I need.”  Or, “It’s not the money, it’s the stuff.”  We chortle like merry imbeciles at our bad Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters impressions but really, materialism itself is pretty ridiculous.  What’s with wanting so much stuff anyway?

Accumulating material goods, past the point of sustaining a reasonably enjoyable and healthy lifestyle, is ironic if you think about it.  The simple equation of working for wages means that each expenditure represents more hours of life that you have to trade in to buy them.  You also require an ever larger space to store what you own.  If you run out of living quarters and garage space, you’ll wind up filling storage space too, then devote more working hours to paying rent on that.  Silly.

Sure, I hanker to own beautiful things. I particularly adore buying original art. That way I get the excuse of supporting someone else’s creative process while adding some beauty to my home.  I haven’t hung a new painting on our walls for too long because there are pesky bills to pay, but I still buy artwork to give as gifts.

Fortunately I’m twisted enough to get a kick out of frugality. For example, my husband and I still refuse to replace the last blanket we received as a wedding gift. It’s pretty tattered, but there’s something about waking up with our toes in blanket holes that strikes us funny.

We’ve also spared our kids indulgences like fancy toys, designer clothes or the thrill of being ferried around in a late model car.  For the first eight or so years of their lives they weren’t exposed to commercial television (except those glimpses at grandma’s house) and we didn’t make shopping a recreation, so they didn’t notice any painful contrast. Judging by peace they show now with worn jeans and scuffed shoes, they still don’t care too much.

There are reasons why some kids are more materialistic than others. A fascinating post on Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids explains,

“Turns out that there are two things that influence how materialistic kids are. The first is obvious: Consciously or not, we adults socialize kids to be materialistic. When parents—as well as peers and celebrities—model materialism, kids care more about wealth and luxury. So when parents are materialistic, kids are likely to follow suit. Same thing with television viewing: The more TV kids watch, the more likely they are to be materialistic.

The less obvious factor behind materialism has to do with the degree to which our needs are being filled. When people feel insecure or unfulfilled—because of poverty or because a basic psychological need like safety, competence, connectedness, or autonomy isn’t being met—they often to try to quell their insecurity by striving for wealth and a lot of fancy stuff. Because of this, relatively poor teenagers ironically tend to be more materialistic than wealthy ones. And less nurturing and more emotionally cold mothers tend to have more materialistic offspring.”

Yikes.

I can’t help but wonder if, metaphorically, this says something about our larger cultural obsession with stuff.  Are we as a people suffering from insecurity?  Sure.  And the more we listen to political pundits, the more insecure we feel.  Is there something about this current time that causes us to have unfilled needs for connectedness?  Having read Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community I’d have to agree with this too.

Materialism may feel good ever so briefly. Maybe seeking out, buying and bringing home the goods stimulates some primal instinct to hunt and gather. Maybe owning things makes us feel safe from deprivation (even while it increases our debt). Or it maybe it makes us feel worthwhile, at least on a superficial level.

Let’s face it, mindless consumption isn’t great for the planet. The developing world can’t live as we do in the U.S. without critically depleting what’s left of global resources. A shift of priorities is in order, one that asks us to be less selfish. Really, how hard can it be to give up lifestyles based on driving to big box stores in gas guzzlers to buy too much crap, then never paying off the resulting credit card debt? Better for us, better for the planet. Yet research indicates that people with the most materialistic attitudes care less about the environment than folks with stronger value systems.

Interestingly, materialistic attitudes aren’t good for individuals either. Studies have repeatedly found that the more a person focuses on the accumulation and ownership of stuff the less happy they are. They are more likely to suffer from depression, narcissism, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior and substance abuse. They’re also more likely to have health problems including headaches, backaches and digestive disorders. Clearly the gimme gimme approach doesn’t do squat for happiness. And really, whether we raise our children in a grand mansion or a small apartment the factors that go into making a family have very little to do with the things money can buy.

Happiness can be as simple as waking up next to someone you love, laughing because the blanket covering you is riddled with holes. What else do you need? Okay, maybe a lamp. And a chair.

Research cited from the following books:
Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle
The High Price of Materialism,
Less is More: Embracing Simplicity for a Healthy Planet, a Caring Economy and Lasting Happiness

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
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18 Responses to Materialism: What’s With Wanting So Much Stuff Anyway?

  1. BarryJoe says:

    hey this is a real nice post and i also like your blogs’ layout too, have bookmarked your site and will be looking for more updates.

    Like

  2. Martha Eaton Panek says:

    Thanks for posting this, Laura. I plan on sharing it with others. Have a simply lovely holiday with your loved ones.

    Like

  3. Leslie Boomer says:

    “If you run out of living quarters and garage space, you’ll wind up filling storage space too, then devote more working hours to paying rent on that. Silly.”

    I’d try to be clever but why? This is so well said.

    Buying and owning less is so much more… more room, more money to spend on good food, to give to charity.

    Thanks for your authentic and timely reminder…

    Like

  4. ChristineMM says:

    I find it odd that reason that some who buy a lot looking for happiness yet feel empty inside—often don’t make the connection to realize that what they are doing is not working. Feeling fulfilled is IMO connected to emotions and relationships not owning lots of stuff.

    Like

  5. Susan says:

    Thank you for a timely post. Although our family does not lead an extravagant lifestyle and we tend toward the frugal side—a move across country still opened my eyes to the amount of “stuff” we have that we don’t really need to be happy and secure.

    Like

  6. Pamela says:

    Thanks for a great post. I’m deep in the middle of post holiday boxing up and clearing out of clutter. It feels good to get rid of so much stuff, but I am amazed at how we aquired it all in the first place.

    Like

  7. Laura Grace Wallan says:

    I had to smile when I first read your name. I was named Laura Grace after my two grandmothers.

    Grandma Grace lived on a farm and frugality was second nature. She was never cheap. She was the most generous person I have ever known. She just made everything count for something. “Be useful to others and everything you need will come to you.” She was a very wise woman and never owned a car, television, more than three dersses at a time and could cook anything even when there was nothing visible in the cupboard to eat.

    Thank you reminding us what matters.

    Like

    • Laura Weldon says:

      I suspect many of our grandparents and great grandparents were like your Grandma Grace. It’s difficult to teach ourselves, as a society, the values she lived every day when people like her are rare. I love her adage, “Be useful to others and everything you need will come to you.” I’ll remember that.

      Like

  8. John says:

    You have it ALL WRONG!!!, you still worry about what you have and how to preserve it, to spend less- means to have more that is the reason why you are doing it, anti-Materialism doesnt mean reducing costs, spend a little – Who is gonna measure it-the propper needs of everyone??
    Being anti-materilistic doesnt mean keeping just what you “need???”
    Because since you say I NEED, you have needs, and that is the beginning
    of what is unmeasurable for everyone, So STOP the hypocrisy,
    What about the computers that you have in front of you-the one that you are writing about this
    Hypocrite thing??? If you want to be anti-materialistic; Give WHAT YOU HAVE for FREE to the poor
    even your clothes of your body…but you dont met any poor around you because you live in a good area-chosen by you, so poor people dont exist in your concept-in your mentality those that dont possess THINGS in this world or perhaps someone that you saw[accidentally] from your window car was a beggar..yeah but that is not poor, its lazy or junkie, so poor people dont exist!?, well perhaps in other countries but again you say to yourself- “its not my responsability” its because they have corrupted governments in those countries thats why their people suffer..and we book our flight to go on a lovely holiday because we deserve it..to hell with others..
    you really make me laugh with all this.
    But again this POST and this discussion is just about pretending to tell to each other smart things and sounding different, BOOSTING OUR EGO,
    It start from here, close your lovely computer and give to someone for FREE and dont need to tell the others about your good deeds-what you have donne
    otherwise you are just doing it for yourself, if you do something good do it and God will see it.
    So the conclusion:
    Being not materialist MEANS NOT HAVING AT ALL not just having a little.

    Like

    • Laura Weldon says:

      John, your passion for living without possessions is admirable. The great prophets throughout time have told us to give all we have to the poor, including the clothes from our backs. I don’t disagree with your ideals.

      I fall short of my ideals every day. (I’m guessing most of us who have ideals do.) That doesn’t mean I don’t continue to reach for them.

      I do believe that all of us can promote understanding of our ideals when we communicate without accusation and prejudice.

      Like

    • Well, that made me need a drink. Thank God I haven’t given all my bourbon away yet.

      Like

  9. John says:

    Dear Laura, I appreciate your wise words.
    I have to apologise to you and the others for the above,
    I didn’t mean to accuse or prejudice anyone, when I said that above – I INCLUDE MYSELF FIRST,
    Its just that all this propaganda about charity and its antipode; consumerism, makes me so sad-about how little we contribute to help the others in need, that is it basically,
    BUT THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE.
    Thank you

    Like

    • Laura Weldon says:

      Dear John,

      Good to hear back from you. Those who deeply feel, as you do, the pain of injustice and poverty, are on the way to making a real difference. It’s a matter of channeling that anger into positive action. Martin Luther King, Jr. called anger a “transforming force.” It can do a world of good. Bless you for your passion. I believe you and I are on the same path.

      Like

  10. Kris Turner says:

    Laura: I just came to your site through the Beacon article by Ms. Breckenridge that I just read. I am thrilled to find your site! I have spent the last 5-1/2 years being the director of a nonprofit in Wadsworth, and have resigned to bring to fruition the single parents program for the tri-county area that I’ve developed.

    Last year, I coordinated the community gardens here and learned so much more about sustainable living than I had known. But, it made me so much more aware of what God has provided for us that we, in our hurried lives, miss. The seeds/plants were donated as was the labor in three gardens across the city. All food was donated to families in need in our area – over 400 pounds of food fed about 80 families.

    The 12-18 month single parents program will incorporate urban gardening, sewing, cooking and canning, green industry employment, as well as further education, all to lead to not only sustainable living for the single-parent families, but to cottage industries, as well. All of this is an attempt to lead them off the welfare roles and into independent living and stronger family relationships. Your family and this blog would be an excellent resource for these parents, if I may have your permission to use you as a “local” teaching tool!

    Thanks so very much for presenting this wonderful information to the blogosphere! I firmly believe we all need to be far better stewards of God’s bounty – we’d be so much calmer, don’t you think?!

    God bless you and yours!
    Kris, Wadsworth, OH

    Like

    • Laura Weldon says:

      Kris, what wonderful work you’re doing. Please feel free to connect this blog as well as our farm site http://www.bitofearthfarm.com and the blog connected to the farm site with your project. I’d be honored. Let’s stay in touch.

      I wasn’t even aware that the Beacon article was up. I’ll have to gather my courage to read it as I’m more comfortable interviewing people than being interviewed.

      And yes, I totally agree, the more we live as stewards of the land and aware of the blessings everywhere around us the more peace we find.

      wishing you every joy,
      Laura

      Like

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