Material World

10 October 2008

In striving to acquire more material wealth and live better, are we falling victim to a throwaway culture that distracts us from the real values in life? Mark Stuart, head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, explores how we can be successful, but contented as well.

Today’s consumerist economy thrives on choice. An inevitable consequence of endless options is the need to earn more money to exercise our choices in the way we want to, and to keep up with our peers. Being able to afford whatever we want makes us happy, we are led to believe, and so we relentlessly climb the status ladder so we can buy a sports car, a yacht, a holiday home – things that will bring us the elusive sense of happiness that comes from being able to acquire what we want. We begin to define ourselves by what we own; and society reinforces this, because our friends and colleagues are doing the same thing.

Yet most of us, at some point, realise the fallacy inherent in this. What happens when we finally possess the home we have always aspired to buy or the car we dreamed of? Before long we start to want something bigger or better. One holiday of a lifetime is not enough; we start to desire a longer, more exotic trip that will in some way be better than the last one.

While it may seem obvious to say that wealth does not bring you happiness, most of us buy into the consumerist culture in which we live without question. This is partly because we are programmed to want more and to strive for better – this quality has an evolutionary advantage, and advertising taps into this. We see exotic lifestyles in far-flung corners of the planet beamed into our living rooms, and we are led to believe we could lead that life.

This leads to a more insidious problem. We can have what we want if and when we demand it, but then we begin to expect such luxuries as our right, leading us to negatively compare ourselves with others if we do not achieve such aspirations.

Striving too hard for expected happiness

"Rates of depression are far higher in English-speaking countries that offer a range of choices, particularly in the US."

None of this would cause problems if we felt happier at the end of our efforts. Yet "Affluenza" – an expression coined by the British psychologist Oliver James – can cause a range of conditions, from depression and anxiety to substance abuse and personality disorders. Rates of depression are far higher in English-speaking countries that offer a range of choices, particularly in the US, than in developing countries where products are still marketed on a needs basis. This would seem paradoxical – surely we should be happier when we have more?

The reason for the paradox is that by placing too high a value on material possessions and status, we begin to think that such wealth can make us content or more attractive, or can magically turn us into better people. When a gap opens up between what we think our financial achievements ought to achieve for us and how we actually feel at the end of the process, it can trigger unhappiness or a feeling of failure. A sense of running to stand still starts to make itself felt, and this leads to a feeling that no matter what you achieve, it will not be contentment.

Highly motivated, successful people are more prone to this type of depression than others, because they set higher demands of themselves, tend towards perfectionism and are more acutely aware of comparisons between themselves and others, who they might perceive to be achieving more.

Quality not quantity

The US embodies this problem, as its wholesale embracing of the free market, while admirable in philosophical terms, has led to what James refers to as a "selfish capitalism" – emphasising personal wealth at the cost of a sense of community.

"Individuality has been replaced by consumerism", he says. While Americans earn twice as much as they did in 1957, the number of people who are "very happy" has declined from 35% to 29%. Even when surveying members of Forbes magazine’s 100 wealthiest Americans, the figure does not change significantly. The super-rich are only marginally happier than the average American citizen, according to psychologists David Myers and Ed Diener.

" While Americans earn twice as much as they did in 1957, the number of people who are "very happy" has declined from 35% to 29%."

However, there is a solution. By recognising that our achievements lie above and beyond money, we can begin to focus our achievements on more meaningful metrics, such as a good work-life balance, a contented home life, a satisfying social life based on friendship rather than status, and a sense of social or environmental purpose.

Living a simpler and more sustainable life can bring far greater contentment. This does not mean you have to skimp on comforts or stop doing things you enjoy. It just means choosing things to do that are enjoyable rather than expensive, or that give something back to your surroundings. Take a commodity such as a car.

Owning a car is no longer about getting from A to B. Instead it is about thinking how other people will perceive you, choosing the ideal specification, narrowing down a big range of choices into one decision, and believing you have chosen correctly when you finally buy it. All this effort, on top of the stressful job required to buy the car in the first place, can cause anxiety, stress, loss of free time, and a distraction from the real values in life.

To resolve this, consider combining your status and commitment by dropping the car and travelling, where possible, by first-class train. It is more comfortable, shows your success without excessive displays of wealth, prevents you from becoming anxious about making a choice and also gives you a feel-good factor because it is better for the environment. It sets an example to others, to think about doing their bit too, and that leads to a positive follow-on effect. And for anyone who thinks trains are less convenient than cars, consider how much work you can do sitting at a desk with refreshments being brought to you, compared with being stuck in traffic.

Valuable career choices

If you are looking to make the next step on your career level, consider a role that offers more satisfaction, rather than more money. You could even consider a job that will pay less. You have everything you need and want, so why not make the next move a qualitative one? Could you bring your skills to a charity or a voluntary organisation, acting as a consultant who such an organisation would not normally be able to afford? If you are an executive in a private sector company, could you bring your experience and knowledge to a public sector organisation? It may pay less materially, but the dividends in feeling you are making a difference will be great.

Taking a quality-time break from work could give you a new perspective and help to put materialistic concerns into perspective. When Arun Sarin, ex-chief executive of Vodaphone, unexpectedly resigned in July, he said that he wanted to take a sabbatical, which will include travel and time spent with his family. He will then return to the US, where he was educated and began his career, to consider what he wants to do next.

Long-term happiness as well as material wealth

Breaking the link between acquiring material goods and expecting them to bring you happiness is only the first step. To turn success into contentment, we need to enjoy what we have, rather than aspiring to more material goods, and anxiously comparing ourselves to others. We need to take pleasure in small things and in our career choices – and we must consider our commitment to the planet we inhabit and those around us.

Affluenza will make us unhappy if we let it. By remembering that financial and material wealth is only part of the picture, we can ensure that we achieve mental and spiritual wellbeing too. That comes from living sustainably, reducing our habits of excessive consumption, and making choices based on the satisfaction they bring rather than becoming anxious about whether the right choice has been made. That way we can engage with others, meet our needs, and fully appreciate the comforts that financial achievements bring.