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

Crazy Busy

simplify holidays, crazy busy, holiday frenzy solutions,

Orin Zebest’s work on Flickr

Who isn’t busy all the time? But around the holidays we’re crazy busy. At least women are, and those lights in our lives we call children make the pace even more frantic.

Sure we make all sorts of efforts to simplify and de-stress but for most of us the joys of holiday shopping, gifting, cooking, decorating, visiting, hosting, and merrymaking have to fit right into our regular (overburdened) schedules.

It’s not like we can make more time where there is none. Well, maybe we can. Or at least use our time differently. I confess to the Crazy Busy Syndrome but I fight back with these tactics.

Renounce the How-Does-She-Do-It-All Disease. You know the symptoms. You show excessive responsible because you’re sure no one else will do it (or do it right). You uphold traditions your family counts on. You pay close attention to get just the right gifts. You worry about money more than usual. You try to keep the focus on intangibles like faith and togetherness. When the frenzy is over you end up with an empty feeling. I’m the first to stand and admit that I’m still in recovery from this disease.

The cure? Talk to your loved ones about what means the most to them, then slice away the rest. If there’s disagreement, slice anyway.

Shun Those Voices. They’re everywhere around the holidays. They seem so genuine and alluring but their sole aim is to make you feel insufficient. They speak to you from TV, magazines, websites, blogs, store displays— let’s admit they’re ubiquitous. These voices tell you that you’re not enough. To compensate you must do more. Dress beautifully, make elaborate meals, buy lavish gifts and wrap them more ingeniously.

This is the only diet you need to go on. Don’t watch a single cooking show, don’t open one slick women’s magazine, stay away from Pinterest, and avoid stores as much as possible. You’ll have a lot more time, plus you won’t have to reassemble what’s left of your self esteem.

Screw Tradition. No, I don’t mean avoiding your house of worship or shunning Grandma’s house. I do mean it’s possible to celebrate the season without so much of the heavy Gotta Do It weight hanging over you.

Some of my most memorable holidays have actually been those that veered wildly from tradition. My family will not forget a holiday dinner at Rebecca’s house complete with walls of wet paint, an oven on fire, and a dog getting sick everywhere. The zinger, she was eager to show foreign guests how we celebrate here in the U.S!

If you’ve always gone to the movie theater to see the newest holiday releases after a day of shopping, skip both and go to a play at your community theater. If you’ve accepted every holiday invitation despite the costs of babysitters and lost sleep, limit your yes RSVPs to those events that are the most warm and wonderful. If you’ve always accommodated your kids’ requests for gifts because it’s Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, put new limits on materialism —try emphasizing non-toy gifts or give four gifts in the categories of Want, Need, Wear, Read. If you’ve always driven around to see the holiday lights, instead go outside on a frosty night to sing together (even if only to a lone tree lit by moonlight). You’ll not only save time and money, you’ll also create new traditions.

Rethink Gift-Giving. Things have gotten out of hand. Children in this country once looked forward to a fresh orange, maybe a piece of candy and if they were lucky a toy or useful gift like a pocketknife or sewing kit. Historian Howard Chudacoff writes in Children at Play: An American History that most toys co-opt and control a child’s play. They’re better off with free time and objects they can use to fuel their imaginations (yes, a cardboard box).

I admit things got out of hand in my own house. In a quest for meaning (let’s rephrase that to my quest for meaning) we’ve always had handmade holidays. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people….. Meals from scratch, homemade organic cookies, handmade gifts. Each of my four children made gifts for everyone every year, gifts that took substantial effort such as woodworking, felting, and ceramics. My teens still make some of the gifts they give although thankfully I’m not the one coming up with the ideas and supervising the process. The last few years economic realities have made hand made gifts ever more necessary, for other gifts I turn to non-profit and artisan sources. Try products offered by non-profits you support, works of art sold at local galleries, and these resources for simple holiday giving.

Last Resort. This tactic is heavy duty, the one I bring out when I start to feel sorry for myself. Because we’re not crazy busy in comparison to women throughout history. We think we’re stressed? Our foremothers hauled water; carded, spun and sewed clothes; chopped firewood and maintained the stove they cooked on; ground grain and made bread each day; planted and weeded gardens, then canned or dried the harvest; stretched limited food reserves with careful planning to last until the next harvest; cared for babies, children and the elderly with no professional help; treated the sick, stitched wounds and prepared the dead for burial; well, you get the idea.

Worse, many many women in the world still do this sort of grinding labor each day. Typically, women in developing countries work 17 hours a day.  Our sisters receive a tenth of the world’s income while performing two-thirds of the world’s work. These harsh realities put any concept of busy or stressed right out of my head. For more information and ways to help, check out the wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

So fight the Crazy Busy Syndrome with all you’ve got. Remember to count your blessings, including the joy of not eating my homemade buckwheat cookies!