Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

Does STUFF make you happy – a few scientific insights (book review)

What Science Has to Say About Our Stuff and Happiness


Even as we rush to the mall with our credit cards, we’re likely to be repeating to ourselves and telling other people that we know “stuff” does not make us happy.


Yet our governments still measure citizens’ well-being in terms of economic output (Gross Domestic Product). When it goes up, we’re supposed to be happier human beings, when it falls – as in a recession or economic depression – we are definitely unhappy.


What is the link between consumerism and materialism and human happiness? When I saw Tim Kasser’s “The High Price of Materialism” here seemed an opportunity to find out. The Associate Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Toronto, has examined what happens when we organize our lives around getting stuff.

There is clear evidence that although average incomes have more than doubled since 1956, the percentage of people in America reporting themselves as “very happy” has remained constant or even declined a little.

Kasser compares people’s need for a “consumer fix” to an alcoholic who needs more and more booze to attain the same high.

‘”People thus become obsessed with possessions and money, looking for the next new thing that will give them the temporary fix they can no longer receive from their old things. As they form ever higher materialistic goals, they experience new and unpleasant discrepancies. Through this process, their needs for feeling good about what they have and who they are remain relatively unfulfilled.”

“The sad truth is that when people feel the emptiness of either material success or failure, they often persist in thinking that more will be better, and thus continue to strive for what will never make them happier.”

Kasser’s conclusions are clear – though not new, they are at least backed by empirical research and testing.

Materialistic values of wealth, status and image work against close interpersonal relationships and connections to others, two hallmarks of psychological heralth and high quality of life.

“Materialistic values lead people to “invest” less in their relationships and in their communities. Notably, this relative lack of care for connectedness is reflected in low-quality relationships characterized by little empathy and generosity, and by objectification, conflict, and feelings of alienation”.

“Materialistic values are associated with placing little value on freedom and self-direction, thereby decreasing the likelihood of satisfying these needs. Individuals strongly concerned with materialistic values also enter experiences already focused on obtaining rewards and praise, rather than on enjoying the challenges and inherent pleasures of activities. As such, they miss out on experiences of autonomy and authenticity…Materialistic values are associated with a tendency to feel pressurized and compelled…All of this suggests that, rather than providing paths to freedom and autonomy, people feel chained, pressured and controlled.”

One of the most interesting sections in the book is the research showing that the “winner takes all” mentality actually produces less over time.

Researchers at the University of Rochester placed students in one of three groups – high materialistic group, low materialistic group, mix.

Their task was to run a forest management company competing with three other companies. Each company could log up to 1,000 acres of the 20,000 acre forest per year. The forest was regrowing at 10 per cent per year. “Participants were reminded that if they bid to harvest only a few acres, their company might not profit much, whereas if they were to harvest many acres, the forest might be decimated.”

As you might expect, the gung-ho loggers, with high materialistic values, initially did better than than their less aggressive competitors. But the forest of the gung-ho company declined quickly and in the end they made less profit than the low materialistic group who had forest resources for longer.

Of course, in the real world, the gung-ho logging company would simply abandon their devastation and bribe politicians in another region to allow them to do the same again to another forest. Examples of this are legion, from the Amazon to Borneo, from China to the Congo.

It seems inevitably in these sorts of books nowadays that there has to be at least one chapter espousing self-help or how the world can be different. In Kasser’s book his answers include “Ask yourself why you really want the money, looks or fame.”

This is part of the weakness of the book. Instead of being a rigorous and far-reaching examination of the question – as one would expect in any book on the subject by an investigative non-fiction writer, The High Price of Materialism reads very much as an academic research edited for the general public.

Though the individual experiments and findings are interesting, there is too much of a survey of the scientific literature rather than specific findings and fascinating insights. For example, Kasser outlines the history of his own research, rather than delivering the meat of it and moving on to explore more of this potentially fascinating subject.

Some of the book is shocking. We might expect advertisers and marketers to be very cynical and even callous towards the consumers they want to purchase their products, but it’s still somewhat amazing to read what important marketers have said about their “marks”:

“There are only two ways to increase customers. Either you switch them to your brand or you grow them from birth.”  James U. McNeal, professor of marketing at Texas A & M

“All of these people understand something that is very basic and logical, that if you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come. companies are saying, ‘Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger and younger.”  Mike Searles, president of Kids ‘R ‘ Us, a chain of specialty stores.

“When it comes to targeting kid consumers, we are General Mills follow the Proctor & Gamble model of ‘cradle to grave’. we believe in getting them early and having them for life.”  Wayne Chilicki, executive at General Mills.

“Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you’re a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that…You open up emotional vulnerabilities, and it’s very easy to do with kids because they’re the most emotionally vulnerable.”  Nancy Shalek, president of the Shalek Agency.

In all, I wished for much more from this book. Why people in the West are determined to go on consuming more and more even when the evidence clearly shows that we are not happier and that by doing so we are not only destroying this planet but also limiting the opportunities for the vast majority of people to attain even basic security of food, shelter and health.

(No,I’m not a communist, but even a little reflection will reveal that when millions of people drive fuel-inefficient vehicles across sprawling suburbs they are creating a high demand for a finite product (oil) that is not then available to be made, for example, into pharmaceuticals, high value plastics (such as computers) or rain barrels. Or, increasingly is priced too high for them to afford (corn for ethanol not food). And yes, I believe that a family’s ability to collect rainwater in a semi-arid country is more important than someone’s desire to drive across town to buy popcorn. Though I’m as guilty of this as anyone else.)

BUY NOW: The High Price of Materialism


One comment on “Does STUFF make you happy – a few scientific insights (book review)

  1. anthony wong
    October 4, 2011

    hi , i just foundyour blog and enjoy reading you. your thoughts about why people who sell up and go sailing give up on that dream is particularly interesting.
    reading this post, i got an inspiration, a eureka moment, it occurred to me that it is not the things that make for happiness. it is the act of collecting.
    like magpies, humans find happiness in amassing thing.
    so many make the mistake that it is the things that make them happy. not so. just the act of collecting makes for happiness. and it does not matter what u collect, it could be things, or it could be ideas, or it could be nothing more complicated than collecting a list of places in the world to visit. or activities to do before u die.
    the reason why i say it is because i find i am v happy when i collect things. the big difference between me and others who just buy them using money and so getting impoverished which then cancels all the happiness they got from the collecting, is that in my case i get my things free from recycling and from finding things on the ground.


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This entry was posted on September 30, 2011 by in Book Reviews, Current Affairs and tagged , , , , .
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