May 11, 2012. What is materialism?
Or to be a bit more specific, what is moral materialism?
Here is what the dictionary says: “moral materialism” is “a desire for wealth and material possessions with little interest in ethical or spiritual matters.”
We can elaborate. Materialism is a state of mind and a lifestyle chosen by those who believe that acquiring and owning material possessions is the most important ingredient in human happiness and well being.
People who hold to moral materialism often depend upon the possession of worldly belongings to build a sense of security and comfort. Matter takes precedence over mind and spirit, and life revolves around material satisfactions. Often, there are expectations that possessing more will result in a happier life.
But these expectations are not always met, and this leads to frustration and, often, a cycle of neediness. Consider the American dream and think how many have sought success, wealth, and fame through hard work and thrift. But now, with the development and progress of industrialization and the rise of modern forms of capitalism, this dream has eroded. It is increasingly replaced by a “get rich quick” philosophy.
Traditionally, since ancient times, people have procured goods according to their actual needs. But after the industrial revolution and, subsequently, the development of modern technology and the spread of consumerism promoted by marketing and advertisement, that has changed. Increasingly, people’s motivations are being manipulated to modify what they believe they need for day-to-day activities and to create cravings for things that they really don’t need.
The rise of the psychology of marketing and the shift in consciousness that it has created have brought tremendous benefits to commercial enterprise. But, it has not equally benefited the customers of those commercial enterprises who consume the goods and services they offer. Today, large numbers of people have every possession they want, but their needs are not satisfied.
People often complain of an emptiness which no material possessions can fill. In the midst of plenty, they are spiritually hungry, unhappy, and in despair – the modern symptoms of discontent. Consider – and it is just one small example – the anorexics, fashion models, actors, and ballet dancers who feel obliged to change their weight to comply with standards which take no account of their inner struggles or their health.
The purpose here is not to denounce money or wealth, or to glorify poverty, or to deny the pleasures of life. It is not money that causes this discontent and this sense of emptiness. Rather, the cause is the human mind and its over-dependence on worldly materials and possessions. It is the denial of deeper intrinsic values – of spiritual values. Research studies show that when poverty is overcome and incomes grow, happiness does not necessarily increase proportionately. Apparently, it is true that money can’t buy happiness.
As a result of the spread of materialistic lifestyles, a culture of self-indulgence and gratification flourishes around the world. According to United Nations reports [here], there are 210 million adults worldwide who suffer from substance abuse and addiction and 140 million more who suffer from addiction to alcohol (World Health Organization, 2001). Materialism: Moral and Social Consequences is a book I wrote discussing desire, over-attachment to material things, and the cycle of neediness in consumer cultures. I note that escaping inordinate desire is a daily challenge which requires moderation and self-discipline to avoid the “hedonistic treadmill”.
Success and happiness are not easily attained, especially in a highly competitive society, and people become discontented. As a result, some resort to the consumption of mood or mind-altering drugs and/or alcohol as a shortcut to both transient happiness and freedom from fear and anxiety. The result can be a lifestyle that impacts both the perception of the nature of true happiness and physical health. Contentment becomes a commodity that can be bought at the market, cultivated in a field, or kept in a cellar (for details, see Alcohol and Drug Abuse).
Materialism and Poverty
Materialism not only affects the wealthy and worldly, but also those who are poverty-stricken and exploited by the rich. Recently I visited two countries in Western Africa – Mali and Ghana – with very different cultures, language, religions and economic situations. Mali is beset by poverty and 50% of the population live on a daily income of $2 per day. People struggle. Ghana is better off and has more industry, more technological development, more wealth, and greater prosperity.
I was invited to speak on topics chosen by each country. To my surprise, I was often asked to speak about materialism in Mali – but not in Ghana. I asked why people in Mali were interested in discussing materialism and its consequences. I was told that although most people were poor, their lives were strongly affected by the materialism of – and exploitation by – other nations. In Ghana, there was more interest in learning about how to cope with life stress due to the competitiveness accompanying economic growth and progress.
So yes, poverty generates stress, but it is overshadowed by the exigencies of survival. And life is simpler and more family-oriented in impoverished countries like Mali. In progressive and industrialized countries, stress is perceived as the price one pays for growth.
A survey by the Chicago Tribune found that people who earned a salary of less than $30,000 per year said that they needed over $50,000 in order to fulfill their dreams. Those with an income of over $50,000 a year stated they would need to earn a yearly income of $250,000 to be satisfied. This and other research studies confirm that when goals for income are met, expectations of what is needed to achieve satisfaction move upward.
Contentment is a sense of inner satisfaction, and variations in contentment depend on expectations. Higher expectations of an unreasonable nature are likely to lead to increased dissatisfaction when expectations are not met. According to Kasser (2004), “the culture of consumption… not only degrades psychological health, but spreads seeds that may lead to its own destruction”.
What the Bahá’i Writings Say
The Bahá’i Writings encourage moderation and detachment from worldly excesses. They give a deeper understanding of the true purpose of life.
“Busy not thyself with this world, for with fire We test the gold, and with gold We test Our servants.”
Bahá’u’lláh asks us to view the material world as transient and temporary, where we are to prepare for the spiritual world of eternity. He encourages balance and discourages greed and excessive attachment to the vanities of this world.
Or, as Socrates said:
“Contentment is natural wealth, luxury is artificial poverty.”