An investigation of growing materialism in America and its effect on societal happiness.
“The happiest people are not the ones with the best or the most things, but those who most appreciate what they have.”
― Oliver Gaspirtz
Following the end of World War II America experienced unprecedented economic growth. With a booming economy, Americans increased their consumption as they looked for ways to simplify their lives. Unfortunately, with the advent of the information age consumption gave way to consumerism. People no longer purchased goods and services to simplify their lives and satisfy basic human needs, but instead pursued the accumulation of things as a means of establishing their self-worth. It is my generation that is now experiencing the significant negative effect of this transition. If happiness was positively correlated to consumerism, we’d be the happiest generation. Instead, we are less satisfied, more anxious and more depressed despite pushing consumerism to new levels.
For me personally, I have always loved shopping; it’s as simple as that. Specifically online shopping. When this research project was brought to my attention, I began to re-look at the products I would purchase, and why I was buying. I instantly became fascinated by the reasoning I would come up with. As a kid born after the year 2000, I first hand experience the effects of consumerism and the accumulation of things. I have been able to recognize how society is driven by ownership and possession. I have experienced the social aspect of it and unfortunately participated in it. Being on social media daily has really intrigued me into the subject. Because we all scroll through a feed that is mostly centered around people posting with or about possessions, we become obsessed with pursuing things of the same or greater value depicted. I have found myself doing this more often than I believe is socially healthy. I am not the only example of somebody who does this, as there is evidence to show that it is an unavoidable issue in social media users. As I connected the changes of consumerism to social psychology, I was able to implement my vast knowledge on the subject, which I obtained from a GOA (ironically) course. I have a strong interest in the field of psychology, and I especially find that seeing trends in the way humans act is super interesting.
With the end of WWII, “a measure of all goods and services produced in the United States, jumped from about $200 thousand-million in 1940 to $300 thousand-million in 1950 to more than $500 thousand-million in 1960. More and more Americans now considered themselves part of the middle class” (Carnegie 1). The most important contributor to increased consumption was a shift to a focus on making things in your life easier.
As time has gone by in America, there has been more and more production of goods, that many regard not as “basic needs” but simply “satisfactory possessions”. This was one of the biggest shifts in American society as there was no longer a focus on the basic human needs that were required to survive and live happily, but there was now a focus on how you can exceed those basic needs to better your everyday living. This became a social-cultural and psychological crisis in America across all income levels.
Not too long ago the word “consumerism” came about:
Consumerism- “A social and economic order that encourages the purchase of goods and services in ever-greater amounts” (Etzioni 1)
The word consumerism and the new norm of living all began due to a national aspiration to become a part of the “middle class” in the 20th century. This drive to become part of America’s middle class created the newfound focus on materialism and possession. As America started to become the economic leader around the turn of the 20th century, “it also took the lead in consumerism. By 2003, personal consumption accounted for 70 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product” (Borno 1).
All of this said, the question arises:
Why do we buy things, and what effect does it have on us?
In America, we suggest that people who live in wealthier areas are vulnerable to an implicit social comparison. “If you see other people spending a lot of money, you feel a need to live up to that standard. Because of this, you end up buying a lot of material items, typically on impulse, even though they don’t actually make you happier” (Howell 2).
The United Nations’s latest World Happiness Report shows that the U.S. is in 18th place, and our happiness levels may, in fact, be falling (Schiller). Furthermore, “Incomes per person have now risen about three times since 1960, while measured happiness has failed to rise at all. In fact, the paradox is becoming more paradoxical than ever. Per capita GDP remains on the up, even if happiness is now actually falling, according to the latest data” (Schiller 2).
While a materialistic view on things is not one that pertains to all, it is certainly something that continues to grow as one by one the ideology is accepted by new people. Part of the reason it is so hard to prevent people from immersing themselves in a materialistic mindset is because starting at adolescence it is instilled in our minds that success is achieved through money (which directly connects to possession). This mindset becomes habitual as we grow up and eventually translates into what we choose to do for a living, and more importantly why. “Organizations see materialism in employees as an important antecedent of productivity and utilize this value to achieve organizational goals. At issue is whether materialism results in negative effects on employee behavior at work, which in turn implies negative effects on fellow employees and the organization” (Deckop).
The Present Causes
The cause of a materialistic society can be uncovered by looking at the most prominent driving factor of today’s materialistic society. This factor is a universal tool that we call “Social media”. Social media is among the leading causes of materialistic mindsets among youth. A major part of our lives is spending time on social media exploring the people and existing things around us. With this exploration comes a natural advertisement of things, even if not intentional. Under examination of the social media world, it appears obvious that social media serves as a source of materialism in its countless advertisements which are unavoidably visible every time we check our feed.
“The pressure of society to be the prettiest, funniest or most popular definitely has something to do with why our generation thinks so much different than previous ones. Social media has given us an outlet where we can hide behind a computer and edit our representation to others” (Ruth 2). These media images are those that represent idealized levels of wealth and consumption (Richins). “These images negatively influence satisfaction with the self and with one’s circumstances by encouraging frequent comparisons against an idealized standard of consumption. Second, they influence consumers’ expectations of ‘what ought to be’ in their lives” (Richins 2).
Of course, there is also the added difficulty to change societal values because of media. It has become the norm to not only have social media accounts but also post with certain content that often relates to possessions. Companies and celebrities even make money off advertising products that “every American can and should have”.
Widescale and Small Scale Solutions
Because social media is such a major contributor to materialism in each and every individual, thus leading to materialism in society as a whole, steps can be taken at the micro level to combat the everyday exposure to materialistic values. These steps can be as simple as straying from daily scrolling through social media feeds. Rather than exposing yourself to the many posts (pictures on social media) that instill materialistic values, immerse yourself in other forms of entertainment. These altered entertainments can include things such as reading books, outdoor activities, social gatherings, and the list goes on. By doing so, you progressively eliminate your social reliance on social media, an often unrecognized negative role that social media plays in our lives. Which this being said comes a responsibility to the media companies themselves. It appears necessary that a simple form of censoring should be implemented to limit the amount of false advertising permitted to flow through users’ feeds. False advertising, which plays on what viewers are intrigued to, is a significant contributor to why we buy things without knowing their actual use (Ruth).
Outside of the internet’s influence on consumers and material behavior, there is a lot of spiritually that can be done to refocus our values away from material possessions. The most effective practice that can be done individually is the practice of gratitude. Gratitude can be defined as, “the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful.” (dictionary.com). By being grateful for what you already have, you become habitually more satisfied with emotional possessions and not material ones. “People who regularly practice gratitude by taking time to notice and reflect upon the things they’re thankful for experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, and express more compassion and kindness” (Carpenter). Just some of the ways gratitude can be practiced are through keeping a gratitude journal, volunteering, spending time with loved ones, and expressing yourself more authentically. All of these methods will lead to a healthier set of values excluding of materialism. While gratitude can be a personal practice, it is also something teachable. Implementing classes in our education system that focus on strengthening the well being of the students by teaching positive psychology methods will automatically serve as a widespread solution to the materialistic mindset often gained otherwise.
After reading the above, I challenge each and every one of you to take the time to self reflect on your values and where they come from. Do they bring you authentic happiness? Why or why not? If you find yourself inclined to test out some of the solutions above, I totally recommend finding motivation to do so! Also inform the people around you of ways they can join in with you in your practices. Hopefully you experience a positive change and will end up with a fresher take on your place in society, and of course, recognize how little of that position depends on possession!
Thank you and I hope you have enjoyed viewing this webpage. Now I turn to you to reflect on yourself and take into account all of the above. I encourage you to try out a couple of the suggested solutions if you feel inclined to, and I would love to hear of your experiences. Please feel welcome to put your thoughts and questions below! If you’d like to reach out one-on-one, send me an email email@example.com