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Psychological Effects of Materialism and Work on Happiness

Happiness for many is the elusive butterfly. But it is merely the means by which we attain happiness that is flawed, not the ends. Our recent fixation on work is more of a product of our struggle for happiness than it is an awakening of some altruistic work ethic. For many, work has supplanted community life and has had an adverse effect on happiness. Advertising has also become a primary determinant of our satisfaction, and is only a part of a larger materialistic culture in which we are not only customers but also perpetual consumers. The phrase "wealth does not ensure happiness" is deceptively simple but is unfortunately not heeded by many in our society. What makes one happy is hard to define because it is transient and differs from person to person. This research paper is psychological at its core, but also contains elements of sociology, culture, and economics. Apparently, it takes many fields to adequately tackle the emotion of happiness.

Television and advertising

I have often wondered why commercial television and radio have become so dissatisfying lately. For many, television is the primary medium to the outside world. Jon Stewart and David Letterman mold political opinions while dramas and sitcoms mold social values. But commercial broadcasts do much more than just shape our opinions and inform us of the news — television has made us perpetual consumers. The television viewer will watch the endless barrage of commercials, the morally bankrupt characters on dramas, the improbable situations in sitcoms, and the news media's perpetual fixation on sensationalist coverage of violence and sex. Commercials especially eat away at people's happiness and erode the general satisfaction they have with their possessions. In real life, conflicts are not always resolved before the top of the hour and houses are not meticulously clean and endowed with all the best things. People possess items they do not want and desire items they do not have.

Gratuitous advertising plays a large part in our perception of our material accumulations. Businesses behind these advertisements play on our most primal need: the desire to be happy. And after all, businesses exist partially to meet peoples' wants and needs, and therefore to assist them in their never-ending quest for permanent happiness. But advertising is not exclusively benevolent, as programmer and author Keith Akers states:

[I]sn't the effect of advertising to deliberately manufacture feelings of inadequacy, fragile self-worth, and so forth? Thus, it is not the case that all of this advertising and promotion of commerce does more than just capitalize on unhappiness, [sic] it is geared towards creating unhappiness…

Unhappiness unfortunately generates a need for material possessions and more wealth. For this reason, unhappiness and materialism reinforce each other; materialism breeds unhappiness and vice versa. (Akers)

True happiness is what Aristotle called the "chief good" — that is, the ultimate goal of existence. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003, p. 21) Businesses and the consumerism mindset have helped to shift the source of true happiness from intangible entities such as relationships, faith, and security to material goods. Dependence on material goods for one's happiness is futile; it is no surprise that materialistic people are more likely to be depressed. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) Robert Arkin, PhD, has proved that one having a materialistic worldview is linked to "lower levels of life satisfaction." (Beckmann, 2002) Further studies empirically link self-doubt with materialism. (Beckmann, 2002)

Wealth does not ensure happiness

There are two main reasons why wealth does not ensure happiness. Firstly, we adapt to our financial circumstances. No matter how well off we become, out wealth becomes stale and we seek something bigger, better, and more fulfilling. Adaptation, as it applies to happiness, involves "our tendency to form judgments...relative to a 'neutral' level defined by our prior experience." (Myers, 2004, p. 525) Take, for instance, one's salary. An amount that at one time seemed generous is now not enough (inflation notwithstanding). A stinging example of adaptation can be found in the expectations of Jim Clark, founder of Netscape:

Before Silicon Graphics, Clark said a fortune of $10 million would make him happy; before Netscape, $100 million; before Healtheon, a billion; now, he told [author Michael] Lewis, "Once I have more money than Larry Ellison, I'll be satisfied." Ellison, the founder of the software company Oracle, is worth $13 billion. (Kasser, 2002, p. 43)

Adaptation causes a large salary or net worth to soon appear to be "average" or even not enough. And no one wants just an average salary. This is one of the reasons currencies are inflicted with inflation — people quickly become unhappy with their current salaries and demand more.

The second reason wealth does not ensure happiness is our tendency to compare our wealth with those who have more. Myers calls this "relative deprivation — the sense that we are worse off than others with whom we compare ourselves." (Myers, 2004, p. 526) As long as we associate with people who have more, we will feel deprived — and even disadvantaged — no matter how much we have. My boss once told me of the time his friend's rich mother returned a $6,000 dress because she was afraid the other ladies would laugh at her behind her back supposedly because of her "shoddy" clothing. As if we don't get enough relative deprivation from our peers, television reinforces it by flaunting the "good life" and rarely championing middle-class values such as hard work and thrift. Conversely, people who compare their lives with those less fortunate (either physically or financially) tend to experience relative endowment — the sense that we are happier and more content than others. (Myers, 2004)


People who have shifted their focuses of happiness from intangible to tangible objects may also be placing more emphasis on their occupations and may be relying on said occupations for fulfillment. Psychologist Ilene Philipson believes "...[w]ork has become something we do not merely for money, but for self-expression and self actualization. This ideology has extended far beyond the professionals and artists with whom it has long resided and has spread throughout all classes of society." (2002, p. 2) If one's happiness rests on material objects, it only makes sense that the processes we undertake to acquire material objects should be so revered.

With typically both spouses working outside the home, community involvement has given way to work. Says Robert Putnum, author of Bowling Alone: "In the ten short years between 1985 and 1994, active involvement in community organizations in this country fell by 45 percent. By this measure, nearly half of America's civic infrastructure was obliterated in nearly a decade." (2000, p. 60) People are participating less and less in activities that once brought fulfillment and even happiness — volunteer work, PTA meetings, church activities, and even bowling leagues.

Our fixation with material goods as a primary source of happiness has caused us to forego community activities in a quest for more wealth. Few realize that we could be happier if we were actively involved in the community and had social ties outside of work. It's ironic that shopping is one chore that places us in the community and gives us opportunities to "interact." But we shop and consume not to interact with a community, but to attempt to add meaning to our lives. Notes Professor James B. Twitchell of the University of Florida in Gainesville: "[w]e forever talk about how work gives us meaning — labore est orare — but it may be consumption that we are referring to." (1999, p. 19) Do we work in order to afford the finer things in life, or do our spending habits necessitate our acquisition of money? (1999, p. 19)

What makes us happy

Consumption ultimately fails to give us meaning because its happiness is transient. What makes one happy today may fail to make one happy tomorrow. Happiness operates on the principle of fulfilling wants and needs. For many, the fulfillment of basic needs, such as oxygen, food, clothing, and shelter, can make them happy — albeit temporarily. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) We then begin to seek security as a source of happiness. Adaptation to security leads us to look for love, attention, community, et cetera. Adaptation to love and a sense of belonging leads us to seek self-esteem and fulfillment. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) This is where materialism and unbridled consumerism come in. We seek the symbols of wealth and power in an attempt to bolster our self-esteem. Our highest level of happiness comes from self-actualization. (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003) that is, living life to our fullest potential. People who have reached this level are doing what they love (some may say "what they were born to do") and getting paid much for it.

Author and publisher Marilyn Ferguson acknowledges that if one sets out to, say "make a lot of money, or they want to be a writer or be a political leader, or whatever — [it] doesn't work... If you think of something that you really want to give to people — that they need — you may make a lot of money from it." (Bloch, Ferguson, et al., 1988) Pursuing money, first and foremost, will rarely satisfy. Ferguson suggests focusing rather on the means — doing what you enjoy — and doing what makes you happy. You are more likely to be successful if you are passionate and enthusiastic about your work. Money is not the objective; it's a byproduct.

Positive psychology has found that "attaining happiness is hard work," (Easterbrook, 2003, p. 221) but it is possible nonetheless. Similarly, remaining happy takes constant effort. "Laura King, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, has found that achieving a positive attitude toward life requires considerable effort. People may slip into unhappiness simply because it is the path of least resistance." (Easterbrook, 2003, p. 222) While psychologists have determined that about "50 percent of the difference among people's happiness ratings is heritable," (Myers, 2004, p. 528) shifting one's focus from material goods to intangible things (such as community, strong family ties, and faith) can increase one's chances of becoming and remaining happy.


Advertisers prey not only on our unhappiness but subtly work to make us unhappy and unsatisfied. "Wealth does not ensure happiness" is by now a cliché but is bolstered by two principles: that of adaptation and relative deprivation. Both work against us and lead us into a perpetual cycle of materialism. Many view their jobs as sources of happiness, because:

  • Jobs have replaced traditional community activities, and
  • Jobs are associated closely with the acquisition of material goods.

Happiness does not have to be the elusive butterfly. Happiness, for people trapped in consumerism and materialism, is an unattainable goal; it can be more easily reached through self-actualization, that is, bringing oneself to one's fullest potential. This is not a viable option for many, who chose the path of least resistance: materialism and unhappiness.

Related article

Works Cited

Akers, Keith. (n.d.). "The High Price of Materialism". Retrieved November 21, 2004,

Beckmann, Lacey. (2002). Man's Best Friend? [Electronic Version]. Psychology Today, Nov/Dec 2002.

Bloch, Arthur. (Producer and Director), Marilyn Ferguson, et al. (1988). Personal and Social Change: Brain, Mind and Society [Videocassette]. Oakland, CA: Thinking Allowed Productions.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihali. (2003). Small ImageGood Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York: Viking Press.

Easterbrook, Gregg. (2003). Small ImageThe Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. New York: Random House.

Kasser, Tim. (2002). Small ImageThe High Price of Materialism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Myers, David G. (2004). Psychology [seventh edition]. New York: Worth Publishers.

Philipson, PhD, Ilene. (2002). Small ImageMarried to the Job: Why We Live to Work and What We Can Do About It. New York: The Free Press.

Putnam, Robert. (2000). Small ImageBowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Twitchell, James B. (1999). Small ImageLead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. New York: Columbia University Press.