Cover Story

Compared with Americans in 1957, today we own twice as many cars per person, eat out twice as often and enjoy endless other commodities that weren't around then--big-screen TVs, microwave ovens, SUVs and handheld wireless devices, to name a few. But are we any happier?

Certainly, happiness is difficult to pin down, let alone measure. But a recent literature review suggests we're no more contented than we were then--in fact, maybe less so.

"Compared with their grandparents, today's young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology," notes Hope College psychologist David G. Myers, PhD, author of the article, which appeared in the American Psychologist (Vol. 55, No. 1). "Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being."

These findings emerge at a time when the consumer culture has reached a fever pitch, comments Myers, also the author of "The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty" (Yale University Press, 2000).

So what does psychologists' research say about possible effects of this consumer culture on people's mental well-being? Based on the literature to date, it would be too simplistic to say that desire for material wealth unequivocally means discontent. Although the least materialistic people report the most life satisfaction, some studies indicate that materialists can be almost as contented if they've got the money and their acquisitive lifestyle doesn't conflict with more soul-satisfying pursuits. But for materialists with less money and other conflicting desires--a more common situation--unhappiness emerges, researchers are finding.

"There's a narrowing of the gap between materialists and nonmaterialists in life satisfaction as materialists' income rises," notes Edward Diener, PhD, a well-known researcher of subjective well-being and materialism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "So if you're poor, it's very bad to be a materialist; and if you're rich, it doesn't make you happier than nonmaterialists, but you almost catch up."

Why are materialists unhappy?

As with all things psychological, the relationship between mental state and materialism is complex: Indeed, researchers are still trying to ascertain whether materialism stokes unhappiness, unhappiness fuels materialism, or both. Diener suggests that several factors may help explain the apparent toll of pursuit of wealth. In simple terms, a strong consumerist bent--what William Wordsworth in 1807 called "getting and spending"--can promote unhappiness because it takes time away from the things that can nurture happiness, including relationships with family and friends, research shows.

"It's not absolutely necessary that chasing after material wealth will interfere with your social life," Diener says. "But it can, and if it does, it probably has a net negative payoff in terms of life satisfaction and well-being."

People with strong materialistic values appear to have goal orientations that may lead to poorer well-being, adds Knox College psychologist Tim Kasser, PhD, who with Berkeley, Calif., psychotherapist Allen Kanner, PhD, co-edited a new APA book, "Psychology and Consumer Culture" (APA, 2004), featuring experts' research and views on the links between consumerism, well-being and environmental and social factors.

In Kasser's own book, "The High Price of Materialism" (MIT Press, 2002), Kasser describes his and others' research showing that when people organize their lives around extrinsic goals such as product acquisition, they report greater unhappiness in relationships, poorer moods and more psychological problems. Kasser distinguishes extrinsic goals--which tend to focus on possessions, image, status and receiving rewards and praise--from intrinsic ones, which aim at outcomes like personal growth and community connection and are satisfying in and of themselves.

Relatedly, a not-yet-published study by University of Missouri social psychologist Marsha Richins, PhD, finds that materialists place unrealistically high expectations on what consumer goods can do for them in terms of relationships, autonomy and happiness.

"They think that having these things is going to change their lives in every possible way you can think of," she says. One man in Richins's study, for example, said he desperately wanted a swimming pool so he could improve his relationship with his moody 13-year-old daughter.

The roots of materialism

Given that we all experience the same consumeristic culture, why do some of us develop strongly materialistic values and others don't? A line of research suggests that insecurity--both financial and emotional--lies at the heart of consumeristic cravings. Indeed, it's not money per se, but the striving for it, that's linked to unhappiness, find Diener and others.

"Research suggests that when people grow up in unfortunate social situations--where they're not treated very nicely by their parents or when they experience poverty or even the threat of death," says Kasser, "they become more materialistic as a way to adapt."

A 1995 paper in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 31, No. 6) by Kasser and colleagues was the first to demonstrate this. Teens who reported having higher materialistic attitudes tended to be poorer and to have less nurturing mothers than those with lower materialism scores, the team found. Similarly, a 1997 study in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 23, No. 4) headed up by Aric Rindfleisch, PhD, then a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now an associate professor of marketing there, found that young people whose parents were undergoing or had undergone divorce or separation were more prone to developing materialistic values later in life than those from intact homes.

And in the first direct experimental test of the point, Kasser and University of Missouri social psychologist Kenneth Sheldon, PhD, reported in a 2000 article in Psychological Science (Vol. 11, No. 4), that when provoked with thoughts of the most extreme uncertainty of them all--death--people reported more materialistic leanings.

More money=greater happiness?

The ill effects of materialism appear subject to modification, other research finds. In a longitudinal study reported in the November 2003 issue of Psychological Science (Vol. 14, No. 6), psychologists Carol Nickerson, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Norbert Schwarz, PhD, of the University of Michigan, Diener, and Daniel Kahnemann, PhD, of Princeton University, examined two linked data sets collected 19 years apart on 12,000 people who had attended elite colleges and universities in the 1970s--one drawn in 1976 when they were freshmen, the other in 1995.

On average, those who had initially expressed stronger financial aspirations reported lower life satisfaction two decades later than those expressing lower monetary desires. But as the income of the higher-aspiration participants rose, so did their reported life satisfaction, the team found.

James E. Burroughs, PhD, assistant professor of commerce at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, and the University of Wisconsin's Rindfleisch conclude that the unhappiest materialists are those whose materialistic and higher-order values are most conflicted. In a 2002 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research (Vol. 29, No. 3), the team first gauged people's levels of stress, materialistic values and prosocial values in the domains of family, religion and community--in keeping with the theory of psychologist Shalom Schwartz, PhD, that some values unavoidably conflict with one another. Then in an experimental study, they ascertained the degree of conflict people felt when making a decision between the two value domains.

The unhappiest people were those with the most conflict--those who reported high prosocial and high materialistic values, says Burroughs. The other three groups--those low in materialism and high in prosocial values, those low in prosocial values and high in materialism, and those lukewarm in both arenas--reported similar, but lower levels of life stress.

His findings square with those of others: that the differences in life satisfaction between more and less materialistic people are relatively small, says Burroughs. And most researchers in the area agree that these values lie along a continuum, he adds.

"Material things are neither bad nor good," Burroughs comments. "It is the role and status they are accorded in one's life that can be problematic. The key is to find a balance: to appreciate what you have, but not at the expense of the things that really matter--your family, community and spirituality."

The bigger picture

Even if some materialists swim through life with little distress, however, consumerism carries larger costs that are worth worrying about, others say. "There are consequences of materialism that can affect the quality of other people's and other species' lives," says Kasser.

To that end, he and others are beginning to study links between materialistic values and attitudes toward the environment, and to write about the way consumerism has come to affect our collective psyche. Psychotherapist Kanner, who co-edited "Psychology and Consumer Culture" with Kasser, cites examples as minor as parents who "outsource" parental activities like driving their children to school and those as big as international corporations leading people in poor countries to crave products they can ill afford.

Indeed, consumerism is an example of an area where psychology needs to stretch from its focus on the individual and examine the wider impact of the phenomenon, Kanner believes.

"Corporate-driven consumerism is having massive psychological effects, not just on people, but on our planet as well," he says. "Too often, psychology over-individualizes social problems. In so doing, we end up blaming the victim, in this instance by locating materialism primarily in the person while ignoring the huge corporate culture that's invading so much of our lives."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.