Research has associated consumerism and materialism with low self-esteem and the feelings of loneliness and unhappiness.
A series of studies published in the journal, Motivation and Emotion showed that as people become more materialistic, their sense of wellbeing and purpose is reduced and if they become less materialistic, it rises.
While materialism is good for the economy, fuelling growth, it can have a negative impact on a personal level, leading to anxiety and depression. Consumerism can also damage relationships, communities, and the environment.
In many ways, this is a logical correlation. Consumerism and materialism often involve comparisons with others and, if it is perceived that others are doing better, resulting feelings of deficiency are understandable. With the immense amount of advertising we are bombarded with on a daily basis, it is unsurprising that there are many things we feel we want and need.
Advertising plays on our fears and the need for social acceptance. When we are told a product will give us youthful skin, make us more sexually successful or impress others, it is little wonder that we take away feelings of being less than good enough as we are, hence the resulting low self-esteem.
In addition, focusing exclusively on earning enough money to buy more can take time away from the things that can nurture happiness including relationships, social activities, hobbies, charity and community work and the environment.
Concern about the effects of consumerism and materialism is not a new thing. As far back as 1806, in his poem, The World is too much with us; late and soon. William Wordsworth warned against the phenomenon of “getting and spending”:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
What consumerism and materialism are actually doing to us
A further study on materialism found that it could foster social isolation. The study found that when materialistic objects are pursued as a way to gain success, increase happiness or reduce feelings of loneliness, they actually led to feelings of loneliness. Conversely, for those seeking possessions for their own sake, or for the joy and fun of consumption, loneliness decreased over time.
People believe that buying more and more things will make them happy when research has shown this isn’t the case. The obvious failure of acquiring more possessions to fuel happiness is demonstrated by the fact that despite significant increases in prosperity, larger living quarters and a better overall quality of life, people are actually less happy and suffer more from depression, alcoholism and increased crime than fifty years ago.
The good news is that when self-esteem is increased, materialism naturally decreases. A study by Ji Kyung Park and Deborah Roedder John found that simple actions could improve self-esteem.
In their study, children were given paper plates on which their peers had written positive comments. The researchers found that this ‘priming’ of self-esteem ‘completely eliminated the differences in materialism among different age groups that the researchers observed earlier’.
This suggests that simple actions taken to improve self-esteem could stop the self-esteem/materialism cycle and lead to an increase in feelings of self-worth and happiness.