Economic materialism

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This article addresses materialism in the economic sense of the word. For information on the philosophical and scientific meanings, see materialism.

Materialism (adj. materialistic) is the excessive desire to acquire and consume material goods. It is often bound up with a value system which regards social status as being determined by affluence (see conspicuous consumption) as well as the perception that happiness can be increased through buying, spending and accumulating material wealth. Positively, materialism might be considered a pragmatic form of enlightened self-interest based on a prudent understanding of the character of capitalist society. Negatively, it is considered a crass, if not false, value system induced by the spell of commodity fetishism and void of more noble and worthy values: all worths. See ethics.


Consumer research typically looks at materialism in two ways. One as a collection of personality traits[1] and one as an enduring belief or value.[2]

Materialism as a personality trait

Belk's conceptualization of materialism includes three original personality traits.[3]

  • Nongenerosity – an unwillingness to give or share possession with others.
  • Envy – desire for other people's possessions.
  • Possessiveness – concern about loss of possessions and a desire for the greater control of ownership.

Materialism as a value

Acquisition centrality is when acquiring material possession functions as a central life goal with the belief that possessions are the key to happiness and that success can be judged by people's material wealth.[4]

Growing materialism in America

In the United States, there is a growing trend of increasing materialism in order to pursue the "good life." Research shows that recent generations are focusing more on money, image, and fame than ever before - especially since the generations of Baby Boomers and Generation X.[5]

In one survey, 1 in 14 Americans would murder someone for 3 million dollars and 65% of respondents said they would spend a year on a deserted island to earn $1 million.[6]

A survey conducted by the University of California and the American Council on Education on a quarter of a million new college students found that their main reason for attending college was to gain material wealth. From the 1970s to the late 1990s, the percentage of students who stated that their main reason for going to college was to develop a meaningful life philosophy dropped from more than 80% to about 40%, while the purpose of obtaining financial gain rose from about 40% to more than 75%.[7]

Materialism and happiness

However, an increase in material wealth and goods in America has actually had little to no effect on the well-being and happiness of its people.[8][9] Skitovsky called this a "joyless economy" in which people endlessly pursue comforts to the detriments of pleasures.[10]

Using two measures of subjective well-being, one study found that materialism was negatively related to happiness, meaning that people who tended to be more materialistic were also less happy.[11] When people derive a lot of pleasure from buying things and believe that acquiring material possessions are important life goals, they tend to have lower life satisfaction scores.[12] Materialism also positively correlates with more serious psychological issues such as depression, narcissism and paranoia.[13]

However, the relationship between materialism and happiness is more complex. The direction of the relationship can go both ways. Individual materialism can cause diminished well-being or lower levels of well-being can cause people to be more materialistic in an effort to get external gratification.[14]

Instead, research shows that purchases made with the intention of acquiring life experiences such as going on a family vacation make people happier than purchases made to acquire material possessions such as a car. Even just thinking about experiential purchases makes people happier than thinking about material ones.[15]


Criticism of economic materialism comes from many sources including religion, environmentalism and social activism. Many religions oppose materialism because of the belief that it interferes with religion and spirituality or that it leads to an immoral lifestyle. Thomas Aquinas wrote "Greed is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things."[16] A main concern is that materialism is unable to offer a proper raison d'être for human existence. Environmentalists feel that increasing materialism (and correlating increase of demand on resources) is unsustainable, especially when coupled with population growth, and most often leads to an increased destruction of nature. Some social activists believe that materialism is often a source of problems such as crime, pollution, environmental degradation, war, economic inequality, poverty, oppression and genocide.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Belk, R.W. (1985). Trait aspects of living in the material world. Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 265-280.
  2. Richins, M. L. & Dawson, S. (1992). A consumer values orientation for materialism and its measurement: Scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research, 19,303-316.
  3. Belk, R.W. (1985). "Trait aspects of living in the material world." Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 265–280.
  4. Richins, M.L. (1994). Valuing things: The public and the private meanings of possessions. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, 504-521.
  5. Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K. & Freeman, E.C. (2012). Generational differences in young adults' life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966-2009. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 1045-1062.
  6. Kanner, Bernice (2001), Are You Normal about Money? Princeton, NJ: Bloomberg Press.
  7. Myers, D.G. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, 55(1), 56-67.
  8. Frank, R. H. (1999). Luxury fever: Why money fails to satisfy in an era of success. New York: Free Press.
  9. Easterlin, R. (1995). Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all? Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 27, 35–47.
  10. Skitovsky, T. (1976). The joyless economy: The psychology of human satisfaction. New York: Oxford University Press.
  11. Russell, W. B. (1984) Three scales to measure constructs related to materialism: reliability, validity, and relationships to measure of happiness. Advances in Consumer Research, 11, 291-297.
  12. Richins, M. L. & Dawson, S. (1992). A consumer values orientation for materialism and its measurement: Scale development and validation. Journal of Consumer Research, 19,303-316.
  13. Kasser, T. & Ryan (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22, 280-287.
  14. Boven, V.L. & Gilovich, T. (2004). The social costs of materialism. Review of General Psychology, Vol 9(2), Jun 2005, 132-142.
  15. Van Boven, L. (2005). Experientialism, materialism, and the pursuit of happiness. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 132-142.
  16. Summa Theologica - Question 118. The vices opposed to liberality, and in the first place, of covetousness

External links

Scientific American. 'Can money buy happiness?'[1]