Toward Enlightened Materialism

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With the holidays behind us, the gifts that gave us such pleasure earlier may now seem not so amazing. Will material goods always disappoint us or can we find a way to be both materially and emotionally fulfilled?

Ascetics Cluck Their Tongues

With the “Wall Street” movie franchise in its third iteration, we’ve come a long way from earnestly asserting that “greed is good” or that material wealth can make us happy. It would be hard to miss the drumbeat of psychologists, philosophers and self-help gurus who point out the intuitive belief in wealth as a source of happiness, the rush of pleasure just before and upon acquiring the object of our desire, then the inevitable disappointment when stuff fails to satisfy long term.

Explanations for why materialism disappoints are also readily at hand. Hedonic Adaptation says that anything (holiday gifts included) becomes familiar and eventually all but overlooked. Most of us also have the unfortunate habit of comparing what we have to what everyone else has. And if you look, you can always find someone with a bigger, better, brighter gift than yours.

While experts are long on explanations, they’re often short on recommendations. What good is knowing holiday cheer fades? If material wealth disappoints, must we become ascetics and turn our back on the futile pursuit of happiness through more stuff? While there are many non-materialistic ways to become happier, it’s still possible to get happiness from things. It just takes a bit more skill than opening presents on Christmas morning.

Finding Happiness with Stuff

A frequently cited finding of happiness research is that pleasant experiences pay out greater happiness dividends than acquisitions. So going out to dinner regularly might be more happy-making than some big purchase of equal monetary value.

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On top of buying experiences directly — e.g., going on vacation, seeing movies, or taking enrichment classes — possessions can also facilitate experiences. Photography fanatics get very excited about their gear in its own right, but having good gear also enables more and better photography.

I’ve talked before about my walking habit that evolved over several years: see “Self Care When There’s No Time for Self Care” or “Find Your Secret Formula”, for example. But I haven’t yet spoken of the little bits of equipment that make it an experience worth repeating again and again. At first, I just walked in my office clothes and leather shoes. I didn’t go far, so it was comfortable enough. But when I decided to walk for longer periods, having running shoes available made a huge difference. The shoes aren’t terribly expensive, but they make walking just that much more comfortable.

Later I started listening to podcasts and audiobooks as I walked, and background noise started to become a problem. So I picked up a set of earbuds just for walking. When I got disenchanted with the podcasts, I realized that having a good walk was worth the investment to buy new audiobooks. The shoes, the earbuds and the audiobooks could all be considered “stuff” but in my life they are just enablers of a healthy habit that I enjoy daily.

Often rather than acquire new things, we upgrade what we have. Upgrades can lead to happiness, but only in certain circumstances. When upgrades are done for the sake of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses, then dissatisfaction is soon to follow. But upgrades done for the sake of better experience can be helpful. For the longest time I had internet service that was quite usable, but bogged down when I wanted to watch higher-resolution videos or when other family members got online at the same time. I made a modest upgrade and now those persistent irritations are gone. My surfing habits haven’t changed much, but the small irritation is gone and I believe I’m happier for it.

Chosen carefully, new acquisitions can be gateways to repeatable, enjoyable experiences. But aspirations of this kind are often in vain. It won’t be long before gym memberships acquired in January have gone dormant. A frightening number of people end up using their treadmills as drying racks instead of exercise equipment. Larger mistakes in this category include boat ownership and vacation homes. Experience teaches that merely buying an item with a fantasy that we will get full use of it is frequently delusional.

There’s no guarantee that a purchase will turn into a series of good experiences or, better yet, a positive habit. Keeping the item near where you plan to use it can improve the odds. Since I walk during lunch hour, I keep my earbuds and shoes in my car. In fact, seeing them there serves as a reminder. Aspiring musicians know that keeping their instruments close at hand will help them practice more often. For big-ticket items, it pays to rent before buying so you can confirm that the pattern will stick. With careful curation of our activities and habits, we can extract more joy out of our holiday treasure troves and feel less regret.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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