How Materialism Hurts Everyone

A life less stuffed
couch piled high with stuff
© Can Stock Photo / Kzenon

My 4-bedroom house has two closets, both 3’ x 2’. If this sounds tragic, be relieved to know that it was built over 100 years ago. Nowadays, each bedroom demands a spacious vestibule in order to accommodate a vast and ever-accumulating wardrobe. As parents, we may come face-to-face with our children’s dependence on material possessions – enabled by us – when we attempt the odyssey from the hall to the bed to kiss our little magpies good-night. “How did we get here?!” you might well ask, and “What can we do to temper our excessive desire for stuff?”

Planned obsolescence

In 1953, American industrial designer, Brooks Stevens, coined the term “planned obsolescence.” Stevens’ notion of this was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” The term broadened to refer to products that would (intentionally) break down easily or become obsolete quickly (see most things invented since 1980 for evidence). The problem grew as merchants could more easily obtain cheap goods from foreign nations, and has exploded even since I was a kid (not that long ago!).

When possessions had meaning

The punitive state of my closet space reminds me that it was not always this way. Historically, children might have owned a toy or two over many years. People spent a lifetime with their household objects, passing them down through generations. Fewer, cherished, and hard to obtain, possessions were built to survive war, weather, and possibly eternity, and were imbued with personal and event symbolism. Dr. Cristian Suteanu, an Environmental Science professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, tracks the trajectory of objects’ value: “There was a time when objects were more than ‘mere’ lumps of matter: there was symbolic meaning related to many of them. Even a food bowl had sacred value...After losing their ‘inner’ meaning...there was history – family history – associated with it...Quick and efficient mass production contributed to further change....objects started to slide so fast through our lives, that there was less and less time for attachments to form between us and them...Recently...objects have crossed the border to the virtual realm.” Somehow, he has seen my kid’s profusion of apps. Our stuff now speaks to our status, even our worth, though we know there are not enough Coach handbags or 3-for-$12 thong underwear sales in the world to adequately express who we really are or make us be successful. The Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

Consumerism and unhappiness

Hours spent in front of the TV and computer opens the door wide to the siren song of advertisers. In the article, “Children, Commercialism, and Environmental Sustainability,” Tim Kasser (author of The High Price of Materialism) targets marketers’ relentless pursuit of children and highlights the very direct impact of consumerism on the environment. Kasser cites that, “...studies around the world make it clear that the more people care about money, wealth, and possessions, the less they value protecting the environment and the less concerned they are about how environmental damage affects other humans, future generations, and non-human life. Other research shows that materialistic values negatively correlate with how frequently adults and children engage in pro-environmental behaviors such as commuting by bicycle, reusing paper, buying secondhand, and recycling.” Chris Benjamin, author of Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada and a weekly sustainability column in The Coast newspaper in Halifax, refers to “...civilizations’ tendency to invent really cool things that make life easier/more convenient, but come with hidden costs...I think our love affair with stuff is a simple lack of foresight...The perils are that we draw down from the resources that sustain us, over-extend ourselves, and pollute and otherwise alter our environments to the point where we can no longer live in them.”

New gets old really quickly

Chris believes that, as are adults, kids are seduced by the base delight of having something new. He says, “...the thing gets older and we get used to having it and it’s less exciting and spends more time in the closet. And then we see a new one, and we want it so badly. It’s new; it’s different; it’s exciting and it feels good. Then it too gets old. Before long we have 30 pairs of shoes or baseball caps or whatever our particular thing is. Novelty is thrilling but by definition it doesn’t last long.” A friend realized this when she recently took her eleven-year-old to the store with a gift card in her hot little hand. She took great pains to carefully select the perfect item, and, practically vibrating with joy, took it to the cashier and paid for it. On the way out the door, she turned to her mother and said, “Can I return this?”

Gift-giving mindfulness

When gift-giving opportunties arise, it doesn’t get easier. When is the gift-giving season, you ask? Always! For instance, there’s Bifocals at the Monitor Liberation Day (December 1) or Nylon Stockings Day (May 15 – a case of planned obsolescence if there ever was one). Jill Pollack is a former host of HGTV’s Consumed, a show in which she helped people who had become overwhelmed by their clutter. She bemoans the fact that people who throw parties are now expected to bestow upon guests, à la Hollywood, swag bags at the conclusion. She also advocates giving experiences, such as a massage to a busy mother, instead of things. Chris Benjamin relates a familiar story: “...the three houses next to us all have boys older than ours - the second-hand clothing flows downhill, more than we could ever use. Yet people still feel compelled to buy us new stuff from Walmart and Joe. It’s not only special occasions, it’s ‘I saw this and couldn’t resist.’ But of course on holidays...there is incredible pressure to participate in lavishing gifts on one another.”

Years ago, with Easter approaching, a friend’s daughter said to another friend’s daughter that she so wanted an iPod Touch. The second daughter replied, “Why don’t you just ask the Easter Bunny for one?” No need to wait for Santa - just ask the current secular mascot. What’s next? Ask the Halloween Zombie for an Xbox? Chris recognizes the impulses, expectations and consequences behind gifting: “At its core, this is an act of love. But if you tell someone you don’t want to participate they think you are ungenerous and uncaring, and that turns an act of love into an act of conformity. So then you must justify your non-participation with rationalizations of the doom of our species – and then you’re just a crazy annoying doomsday prophet.”

A recent movement in children’s birthdays has been toward some form of giving back. Many children are becoming socially conscious and there is a literal world of alternative-to-gift ideas, such as bringing donations for the SPCA or a children’s charity the child feels connected to. Another idea is a gift exchange – everyone brings a gift (stipulate unisex if the company is mixed) that is then placed in a bag and each child gets to pick out a present. You are only limited by your imagination and the search terms in Google. 

There has also been research that shows fostering gratitude in children decreases materialistic tendencies. A survey asking adolescents questions about the value they placed on money and possessions followed by another survey which asked about the gratitude they felt about possessions and the people in their lives indicated that there was a strong correlation between having gratitude and the level of materialism. The researchers then performed an experiment where half of a group of kids was asked to keep a gratitude journal and the other half to simply record their daily activities. At the end of the exercise, they were all given $10 which they were told they could either keep or donate some or all of to charity. The children who were assigned to the gratitude journals donated more than 2/3 of their money, while the control group donated less than half of theirs, suggesting that existing materialism can be reduced.

Give less without guilt

We don’t want our kids to be the only ones without a yo-yo (those are still cool, right?) but we can also feel harangued and resentful when we give in. According to Chris, “...part of alleviating the guilt is the hard realization that it’s not our job to give them that rush of novelty, that if we want them to be deeply and lastingly happy the best way is to build their confidence and strength, sense of self but also sense of community....”

A growing body of research indicates that, rather than the happiness we are promised by the acquisition of goods, the opposite is inclined to happen. A 2002 study co-authored by Tim Kasser, “What Makes for a Merry Christmas?” asked, “are materialistic means the true path to Christmas joy?” You know what I’m going to say. They are not. Repeatedly, Kasser’s and others’ studies have reported that “well-being is low when materialistic values and experiences are relatively central to people’s lives” and that “a focus on money, possessions, image, and status distracts people from experiences which could enhance their well-being.”

When you consider that showering kids with booty is not actually enhancing anyone’s life at all – that in fact it may be detracting from it – and that all you really may be giving is the gift of retail intoxication that crashes faster than a sugar high, you realize the guilt over not giving in to kids' demands is misplaced. Go easy on yourself too. If you’re a “giver” and get great joy seeing the recipient’s face when you bestow that perfect Pandora charm, do it – sometimes. But also remember you will see that same face when you honour them with the precious gift of your company or your cooking, or a trip to a bird sanctuary or the movies.

Out with the old...in with the new-to-you

I’m not suggesting that you buy a mattress at the Sally Ann, but goods are so abundant that second-hand living can be surprisingly large. Chris Benjamin is an adherent to the philosophy of new-to-you and his family participates in a yearly street sale. Modelling such behaviour gives his kids the opportunity to learn about letting go, teaches them that exchange is preferable to purchasing new for environmental reasons, and it’s a great time to engage in community. “It’s fabulous because we all get outside together and browse and chat, and everyone gets a chance to purge a little...Our son takes part in this too. We ask him to go through all his many many things and pick some out...So the key here is that it’s fun and it’s not just his sacrifice alone to make – the whole family can do it together.” He also suggests clothing and toy swaps. “Nothing is cooler than another kid’s toy. So I think this takes advantage of the fact that kids are naturally pretty comfortable releasing things...as long as they feel fairly compensated.” Many places now hold community yard-sales, so watch for these.

What is there to be gained by being content with less? Our stuff holds us in thrall. It distracts us, fuels anxiety, and drains our resources. We have to tend to it constantly, to the neglect of pursuits more conducive to genuine, lasting well-being. Allowing for a more modest physical environment prevents emotional dependence on objects that ultimately cannot fulfill us and usually don't remain in our lives for long. Seeking alternatives to having more is like adding more hours in the day. It stimulates creativity, motivates communication, and inspires community. A life less stuffed is a life more lived.

*Originally published March 1, 2013


Further Reading for Adults:

Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada by Chris Benjamin. Nimbus Publishing

The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser. The MIT Press

Further Reading for Children:

Just Enough and Not Too Much by Kaethe Zemach. Arthur A. Levine Books

More by I.C. Springman, illustrated by Brian Lies. Published by Houghton Mifflin