A new study was just released that proves (once again) that materialism is no cure for what ails us. In fact, the more materialistic we are, the worse shape we're likely to be in mentally and spiritually. (If that first link is too scholarly-reading for you, here's a decent summary for the non-scientist.)
It's not uncommon to think that buying something shiny and new will boost our positive feelings; we've all tried out that theory at one time or another. The bad news is that not only can't we purchase our way to happiness, it turns out that the more we try, the less likely we are to have appropriate levels of self-esteem and the more prone we are to anxiety, stress, and the negative psychic impacts of traumatic events.
At root here is the tendency to look to physical goods as a buffer for our anxiety, threats to our security, and above all our sense of mortality. The materialistic perspective seduces us into believing that these objects can either distract us or perhaps that in some way their physicality can even act as an anchor in an uncertain world. We also hope that objects might be able to confer upon us a status we lack without them. Of course, if we think about it, when we seek esteem through material objects, we're revealing that we in fact don't feel particularly good about ourselves intrinsically speaking. We are saying we need these inanimate things to fill a missing hole inside us.
Perhaps this would be all well and good if mere things could actually do this for us but they simply cannot. Only we -- in our heart, mind, and soul -- can truly fill ourselves, complete ourselves, make ourselves happy and our lives rich with meaning. The more we outsource this onto things outside ourselves, the more insecure, not less, we become. For when our happiness is dependent on external things, we continually run the risk that that these objects will be taken away from us. We might lose our jobs, spend all our money, lose it in a divorce, or have it taken away by illnesses, economic depression, terrorist attacks, changes in governmental policies, or crumbling social stability. Not to mention, all objects have wear and tear on them, they immediately begin degrading from the day we acquire them; cars break down, clothes wear out or become unfashionable, electronics become obsolete. The more we depend on these things for our happiness, the more we put ourselves on an unending treadmill.
One of the key findings of this study is that materialistic people use shopping as a way to cope with fear of death. Which is of course a strategy doomed to failure. After all, how can a bunch of shiny objects really help us cope with our mortality? They solve no existential problem, offer no insight into our human condition, provide us with no sense of interconnectedness, social support, love, or meaning. The best they can do is temporarily distract us…but only until the novelty of the purchase wears off. And even then, as we play with our new toy, at some level we remain indelibly aware that our deepest needs and concerns haven't been addressed, only temporarily shunted aside.
In times of crisis -- personnel or societal -- there is only one lasting solution. We must begin by getting to know ourselves and confronting that inside us which we fear or do not like. Only we can fill ourselves can fill our existential gap. No object can do that for us. The good news is that it can be done, relatively quickly and easily if we know how.
So the next time you're feeling anxious or unhappy, instead of heading online or to the mall, use that time to try out something more effective. Take internal stock, learn to turnaround your negative feelings, make a positive connection with another person, serve humanity in some way, or practice affirmations, prayer, or meditation. There's lots of things you can do...and the best news of all is none of them require a large bank account or taking on mounds of debt.