“The High Price of Materialism”

Money can’t buy us happiness, we are told. And yet, the culture of consumerism that we find ourselves residing in tells us otherwise. This sets up a contradiction that is bound to make most of us miserable. So says psychology professor Tim Kasser in his short book, “The High Price of Materialism”.

Kasser’s treatise focuses on the psychological impact that materialism has on people. He gives several examples and studies that define materialism, which has more to do than just wanting a lot of stuff. His more broad definition encompasses those who get attachment to certain possessions, objectifying people in interpersonal encounters and lack of hospitality. When one cares about image, possessions, riches or status, he makes the argument that these attitudes bleed into other orientations, making a person less welcoming towards others in all aspects.

As a psychological treatise, the reader is told how the materialist is groomed by childhood experiences, media and other outside influences. Kasser posits how individuals prone to mental disorders are susceptible to becoming materialists. Isolation from society makes one lean on possessions, and mental disorders many times quarantines people away from the general population. Whether the disorder leads to materialism or materialism leader to personality problems seems unclear to the author, but the correlation seems to be there.

He argues that if a society focuses on materialist goals in place of spiritual or humanitarian ones, interpersonal relations will become shallower as the case dictates certain goals. If a corporation’s main goal is to make as much money as possible in the service of its shareholders, then it is possible that environmental concerns will suffer in the face of the bottom line. Keeping employees on the book just to keep human beings employed during a recession is less likely to happen. This cutthroat culture would likely cause a hardening of a person, because defensively one might feel the need to toughen up just to be able to hold his or her own in such an atmosphere. Which would then perpetuate a cycle of objectifying others, causing more hardening, and so on and so on. The individual psychological impact of such a crazy roller coaster doesn’t seem to bode very well in such an atmosphere.

However, the solution to all of this is a little vague. Kasser offers some ideas, which include among other things, spending time with family and engaging in hobbies. Sounds great, but unfortunately, these solutions run into problems. Spending time with family, doing what? Solutions such as hiking and playing with a soccer ball, some of his suggestions, rely on purchasing things outside of food and shelter. One needs to buy sneakers and purchase transportation to get to the hiking site (unless one has hiking trails galore in the back yard). If you plan on kicking around a soccer ball, you need to buy one. And let’s face it, a soccer ball is probably not under the auspices of food and shelter. Sitting around and talking sounds quaint at first. But it probably would get pretty old to most people, especially if it is the only activity available. Obviously people need to purchase some kind of entertainment to keep the party going, even if it is extra food for a festive occasion. This still requires some level of consumerism.

“Just getting a hobby” also has its own problems. Think storage space commercials featuring overstuffed garages with discarded kayaks, musical instruments, and golf clubs amongst the debris. The premise of “really doing what you want” is exactly what advertisers promise when they sell their products. A person who is unsure of what he or she is doing in life may fall prey to consumerism in the mire of trying to figure out what he or she really wants to do. This individual might slough through the detritus of various hobbies while running to the store to find a new one, just to discover a personal identity. If one is trying to escape consumerism, this is exactly the behavior a person would want to avoid.

However, Kasser’s premise makes a great deal of sense. When a society focuses on consuming things at the expense of interpersonal relationships, it has an impact on the individual. When an individual becomes a materialist, it is bound to poison all of his or her interactions, maybe causing more people to feel isolated. This isolation will breed more materialists looking to feed to hole that a callous personal encounter caused. And so on, and so on, This vicious cycle needs to be addressed somehow, and realizing that life is more than inanimate stuff is the beginning for a person to get off the cycle.