You only need so much to live a good and healthy life. Then there are a certain number of possessions that account for convenience. What is the rest for? Why do the more expensive brands exist? A $100 T-shirt is made of the same materials as the $10 one. It’s not even necessarily held together better. You don’t even get happier after you buy stuff that you think will make your life better. In fact, you’re most likely happier just thinking about buying the stuff. Some studies even suggest that being more materialistic increases your chances of becoming miserable.
So, why do we keep buying items we don’t need and that don’t make us happy?
Whether or not human beings are inherently prone to jealousy, we often let it cloud our judgment. When jealousy makes you perceive something to be better than it actually is because you don’t have it, it’s called, as you probably know, “the grass is greener (on the other side of the fence)” syndrome or effect.
You might notice a guy move in across the street. Not only does he have a bigger house and car, but every time you see him, he’s smirking. Lucky bastard! For all you know, he could be paying down a gigantic mortgage, and leasing the car. He could be on his last legs and downright miserable. But our first reaction is to jump to conclusions. Perhaps it’s instinct to predict beyond what we have reasonable evidence to assume. Either way, it’s part of what makes us so prone to materialistic tendencies.
What I mean is, it’s often easier to set your sights on a particular item, than choosing to focus on enjoying every day with what you have. Because it seems more like progress, more logical, than simply accepting your existence how it is. So the new car gets priority. And then it’s a bigger apartment. And then it’s to renovate the apartment. There is literally no end to new items to attain you could line up as part of your ideal path in life. And that’s what makes it so dangerous. You don’t get out unless you notice. And you don’t notice unless you want to.
Some theories suggest that our materialistic ways are caused by a leftover trait that was once crucial to surviving: the tendency to hoard valuable materials for later use. When what you perceive as useful or valuable is manipulated, that’s when it starts to become unhealthy. Plus, in this age of convenience, there are many instinctive responses and behaviors that can actually end up sabotaging our happiness and even health.
The rise of new technology is perhaps the biggest testament to this aspect of human behavior. Whenever a new technology gets out, first everybody techie “has to have it.” Then it reaches a certain point where most people’s social circles are filled with people that have it, and then even though they were initially apathetic, suddenly they have to have it, too. Consider a man who didn’t find his house lacking until he saw himself surrounded by bigger houses.
While I would not say that we are utterly brainwashed, the media influences us more than you might think. The past few years, advertising companies have mostly been criticized for the unannounced use of Photoshop. But that’s not all they’re doing. Have you ever noticed how advertisements tend to show very pleased or happy people using the product in question? Not only do advertisements always try to force you to make the connection between their product and happiness, but they also try to make you blame your unhappiness on not having said product. Just think of a stereotypical commercial where a person is troubled, the product shows up and all of a sudden they are overjoyed. And it’s not just in commercials either. With product placement being extremely prevalent in block busters and probably some of your favorite television shows, there’s almost no getting away.
And even if you’re aware of their game, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less effective. Just think about all the bad decisions you have made in your life, perfectly aware of what you were doing.
How many times have you heard, “I wish I had that house.” Or, “If only I had that car…” You might have even said so yourself. This is the most simple of many symptoms that item possession is glorified in our society. A more tangible example is when someone sees a aesthetically mismatched couple, they will often jump the gun and assume that “he/she must be rich.” And while most of us do not let wealth overshadow other qualities, there are certainly people who do. And it’s fair to say that to most of us, wealth is considered a positive attribute.
This is where our craving for acceptance, for reverence, for status comes in. Most of us are are genetically wired to crave the acceptance and love of our fellow women and men. This is probably to ensure our survival as a species, as it would make it easier for the common good to override the search for personal pleasure. But it doesn’t end there. When you convince someone that a way to get accepted, to get liked better, to achieve status, is through the garnering of possessions, he or she will pile them up until they reach the clouds. And when that person finds their cries of acceptance hollow, their statements of love empty, they will pile up some more, now convinced that it is the only answer.
Some argue that focusing on goals, whether materialistic or otherwise, can shift your focus away from what is truly important: your daily life. Normal days make up the bulk of your existence, and if you don’t enjoy them, it’s usually not from the lack of a new car. When the new car arrives, and your life doesn’t change, you lose the illusion that it would make your life better, and have to face the reality that there other things between you and happiness. You can either face facts, and appreciate that a bigger house isn’t likely to be the solution either, or get stuck in a vicious circle until you meet a very rude awakening at a later point in life.
When you’re on your deathbed, what do you think you will recall? The houses you owned? The cars? Or the biggest surprises of your life, the experiences hardest to forget, your greatest friends, and time spent with the ones you loved most?
Most of us would likely be better off if we chose to consciously prioritize people and experiences, over money and possessions.
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