In a recent post, I (rather pompously) said this; we imbue product with meaning, in the absence of greater meaning.
It is the elephant in the room that is taking up ever more space.
How did we get this way? Perhaps psychologists might help us understand this a little better…
We know that it all starts early. In 2008 Batya Licht filmed 22 month old children in nursery and found that a quarter of all conflict was over objects- either defensive or aquisitory. Perhaps little changes as we get older.
Then there are those special attachment objects that our kids often have- the filthy blanket, or the bear or floppy toy. Strangely, we parents often seem to become just as attached to these things- we give them special power over our emotional lives. Perhaps this kind of magical thinking survives into adulthood too- think about the reverence we give to works of art or objects touched by celebrity. It is perhaps significant that children seem to make less use of such objects when parents practice ‘attachment parenting’; sleeping in the same bed, feeding in cue etc. (Green et al 2004) The closer the connection to the real thing, the less we want a replacement.
As for teenagers- they seem to use possessions as a crutch for their ‘selfness’. In 2007 Chaplin et.al. asked young people aged 8 to 18 ‘What makes me happy’. There was a peak around the age of middle adolescence where most seemed to define this in terms of what they owned. Conversely, those who were given flattering and supportive feedback from peers, thereby boosting their self esteem, showed a marked decrease in their pull towards materialism. Those who felt loved and accepted by the people that they shared life with had less need for stuff.
Into adulthood (even though as already hinted at, we all carry our inner children) our association with stuff is ever more complex. The first car, the clothes and perhaps above all things- the house. It is never just a house, it is an ‘extension of my physical body and my sense of self, that reflects who I was, am and hope to be.’ (Karen Lollar 2010.)
It will be no surprise to hear that how much we see our things as an extension of ourselves depends on how confident we feel in who we are. Reflecting on our accumulation of things appears to restore, to bolster, our fragile ego. When we are more secure in our selves we have less need for such things.
Our possessions are also the means by which we send signals to others about the things we want them to value in us. We wear brands like Apple like a cool badge of belonging. We carry books we want others to know we read with the cover facing outwards. This trend towards ‘brand loyalty’ led psychologists Philip Cushman and Robert Pollard to say this;
…as people find less satisfaction and community in traditional sources like family, country and religion, they turn instead to alternative sources in the marketplace.
Quoted in The Psychologist, August 2013
So, is materialism always bad?
Tim Kassler’s research has shown a clear association between holding materialist values and being more depressed, having poorer relationships with others and being more selfish.
However, other research (van Boven, Gilovich et al 2002) suggests that there might be a difference between the purchase of things and the purchase of experiences. Those who do the latter seem to be happier, and more liked by others.
LJ Shrum (2012) suggested that the degree to which buying stuff damages us might also depend on what meaning we ascribe to the purchase. He theorised that it was not what we want, but why we want it that matters.
Time to revisit my earlier premise; that we imbue product with meaning, in the absence of greater meaning.
When we belong, when we love, when we connect, when we feel loved in return- we are less inclined towards gathering stuff.
Conversely, when we feel disconnected, vulnerable, shallow and disenfranchised, we turn to the credit card. And like a bottle of cheap whisky, we only feel the anesthetic for a short time before we wake with a blinding headache.