What Does Self Improvement Look Like in the 21st Century?
In a world of haves and have nots, it’s natural to grow up desiring what you do not have at a young age. The want for more lingers like a heavy cloud into adolescence, ultimately permeating the day’s thoughts into adulthood and beyond. The sensation of living a life with fancy cars, big houses, and expensive champagne (among other luxuries) is a materialistic mindset that stems from a 24/7 global marketing culture.
Becoming rich and/or famous is the plot of many movies and TV shows, and an end-goal of social media platforms. Pictures of our smiling friends are scattered among advertisements telling us to buy this or try that. I believe it’s human nature to be curious about how others experience life.
Yet, as it turns out, a materialistic approach to life can often harm our overall sense of well-being and happiness. While we were exposed to materialistic culture and formed our own belief system around what it meant to be happy (and what we wanted to do with our lives) at an early age, the good news is that we are all capable of changing our mindsets.
Below are 5 points to consider when becoming less materialistic:
- Materialism clouds other values important to us
Without question, we get value from material things; indeed, we do need a modicum of wealth just to survive. Food, shelter, clothing, and transportation all fit under here. And who doesn’t like a little comfort or entertainment every now and then?
But material values are not the only values important to us. The value of relationships, experiences, knowledge, health, and morality are priceless; it behooves all of us to strengthen these pillars of true happiness. Focusing too much on materialistic things will inevitably work against our happiness as we lose track of other values important to us. Afterall, there is only so much time in a day. It makes sense that other values would get pushed to the side.
Research supports this concept. A study from Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that even the mere sight of money can alter our behavior for the worse. We become less cooperative and act in more unethical ways (Kouchaki et al., 2013). This could be as simple as lying to a coworker or stealing from family and friends.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you can remember that we are a product of our culture--a culture that has misplaced many of its ancient values--, then you are already becoming more mindful of the things that really matter. Yes, we can still live with nice material things and money, but we can also acknowledge the importance of other values, too, albeit with greater intention.
- Materialism amplifies negative events of life, making our lives appear more difficult than they are.
In a study in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, researchers demonstrated that materialistic beliefs amplified stressful and negative events, even when they aren’t directly related to material things. This is profound. Not only is materialism antithetical to our well-being, it seems to have the secondary effect of amplifying traumatic events--like a natural disaster, car accident, life-threatening illness, or even terrorism, which makes the event feel like it is that much worse.
Aric Rindfleisch, from Michigan State University, explains:
“If you’re a materialistic individual and life suddenly takes a wrong turn, you’re going to have a tougher time recovering from that setback than someone who is less materialistic. The research is novel in that an event that’s unrelated to materialism will have a stronger impact on someone because of their materialistic values. In other words, materialism has a multiplier effect. It’s a finding that I think is especially interesting given our consumer-driven economy.”
In sum, materialism makes bad events even worse.
- Retail therapy is palliative, only addressing symptoms--not root causes
“Retail therapy” is a proclaimed self-therapy in materialistic societies that warrants individuals the time to buy new things for themselves when they feel down or depressed. Yet, materialism is a cautionary tale, especially before the holiday season ramps up. Rindfleisch continues:
"In times of stress, people often seek solace through shopping. The idea here is that we need some form of a cultural-based coping mechanism, because the research suggests that there is actually a short-term fix with retail therapy. Soon after purchasing something, there is a temporary reduction of anxiety.
Short-term boosts in mood are only a quick fix, and an expensive one at that. It’s a crutch in a time of need, providing some temporary relief when, but if we want long-term happiness, we have to dig a little deeper. Currently, we are a culture of distractions and escapism. Shopping is an “easy” way to distract ourselves from problems and escape the consequences.
With a very materialistic mindset we may be less likely to bounce back from life’s setbacks and stressors. The form of a cultural-based coping mechanism Rindfleisch is referring to is cultivating a strong mindset for having a meaningful life beyond material things. This requires a lot of practice since we cannot fix deeper problems in our life by ignoring them. And we certainly can’t begin to heal if we use material things to escape several aspects of our lives that we don’t feel like confronting head on.
- People tend to like materialistic people less than non-materialistic people
What is your connotation of the prototypical materialist individual? Is it positive or negative? Ironically, in the materialistic society we find ourselves viewing people who value things are self-centered, callous, and not as friendly or caring as someone who values them less (Van Boven, Campbell, & Gilovich, 2010).
If we only made relationships with others based on what we could obtain from them (and not based on liking the individual or caring about their welfare), how strong would those relationships be? Viewing another as a commodity, in this respect, is no different than eating a cow; life is viewed as expendable.
People who are very materialistic can view their relationships as a means to an end, whether that’s to make more money, get a promotion, or rise in social influence. This is why, in part, the negative connotation of materialistic individuals persists. It’s a warning sign of our gut instinct. Instead of fully embracing a friendship with someone who is materialistic, we may worry that they have ulterior motives, and we will be less likely to trust their intentions or give them “the benefit of the doubt”.
- A meaningful life can be happier and healthier than a pleasurable life
Pleasure is a good thing. But materialism can lead to an excess of pleasure-seeking. Think of it as a positive feedback loop, where we are on the hunt for the next material high after a recent purchase or luxury splurge. In this constant cycle (also known as the hedonic treadmill, a never-ending pursuit of pleasure), we can lose track of what it means to have a meaningful life--and dare I say, of what it means to be human.
In a final study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that finding purpose in life activated healthier gene expression, particularly genes associated with lower levels of stress and anxiety. Conversely, feelings of loss, grief, and loneliness activate stress response genes, putting our bodies into an unhealthy state, where we feel like we actually being physically threatened (Fredrickson et al., 2013).
Meaning is a vital thing. Developing your life’s purpose will afford you the sense of deep belonging and connectedness, especially with others. And we know this counteracts the hard-wired flight-or-fight response we perceive. If you want to embrace a more purposeful existence, try:
- Finding your vocation (and it’s okay if your life’s calling changes from time to time, it’s probably supposed to)
- Harnessing a sense of direction (where do you see yourself going?)
- Expressing yourself via song, dance, art, photography, writing, or other creative medium
- Volunteering to help others or to support a cause you believe in
- Maintaining long-term relationships with family, friends, coworkers, classmates, and other loved ones
- Familiarizing yourself with knowledge on a certain topic that interests you
- Gaining wisdom from all living things around you, but even from negative experiences or times of adversity
- Being kind to others at all times
- Doing kind deeds whenever the opportunity arises
- Recognizing that you have the ability to positively influence other people and society as a whole
- Remembering that life is a journey, not a destination
- Focusing on your growth in this life rather than your results
Figuring out the role you play or how you fit in the “bigger picture” is the key to finding meaning in your life. In the 21st century, we must develop a sense of what that big picture looks like for us and our stories. It could be relationship-, career-, society-, nature-, or religion and spirituality-focused, for example, but it could also be anything right outside your own scope of experiences.
The role we play in life matters to a lot of people. The items we have or identify ourselves with matters a whole lot less to people who need us in their lives.
Kouchaki, M., Smith-Crowe, K., Brief, A. P., & Sousa, C. (2013). Seeing green: Mere exposure to money triggers a business decision frame and unethical outcomes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 121(1), 53-61.
Fredrickson, B. L., Grewen, K. M., Coffey, K. A., Algoe, S. B., Firestine, A. M., Arevalo, J. M., ... & Cole, S. W. (2013). A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(33), 13684-13689.
Ruvio, A., Somer, E., & Rindfleisch, A. (2014). When bad gets worse: The amplifying effect of materialism on traumatic stress and maladaptive consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 42(1), 90-101.
Van Boven, L., Campbell, M. C., & Gilovich, T. (2010). Stigmatizing materialism: On stereotypes and impressions of materialistic and experiential pursuits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(4), 551-563.