“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.”
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.