Is it good for your mental health to love material things, such as your car, your clothes, your house—you know, your stuff?
But I’ll bet this isn’t the answer you expected from a psychologist. Wasn’t I supposed to say something like: ‘Things are not really important. They’re just things. It’s your ‘inner life’ [whatever that means] that counts’?
Of course, if ‘inner life’ means your self-esteem and your state of mind, then yes, these things are crucial to your mental health. If they’re not in good shape, you won’t be able to effectively provide yourself with those material things that you want. And, even if you have them, you won’t be prepared to fully appreciate and enjoy them. The serenity of true enjoyment requires that you be at peace with yourself.
Children of rich or relatively well-off parents are often in a tough psychological bind. On the surface you might think: ‘Oh, they’re so fortunate. Why can’t they appreciate what they have?’ We hear it all the time. It seems to be a particularly American pattern, because our standard of living tends to improve with each generation—and we fully expect it to do so.
But there’s a problem with the line of reasoning that young people ‘should’ appreciate what they have. Children and young adults only know what they know. They can’t be expected to immediately grasp what it’s like to create whatever financial comforts their parents have provided for them. Over time, as they get older, this will most certainly change. They start to work. They have successes and failures. They pay taxes. They pay credit card bills, mortgages, etc., etc. Their maturity and understanding develop over a period of time. You can’t look at your 17 year-old and proclaim, ‘You should appreciate what you have!’ Why should he? Thanks to your love, work and generosity, he’s probably never known it any other way.
The only means for making a young person appreciate what he or she has is to take it away, or maybe to never provide it in the first place. But this defies what most parents want for their kids: To provide them with everything they had as children, and, as much as possible, more.
In ‘Titan,’ the biography of John D. Rockefeller, I read that the elder Rockefeller required his kids to live in relatively humble circumstances, away from the family mansion, for periods of time. He did this so that they could learn to understand what it meant to earn nice things, and not simply take them for granted. I’m not necessarily advocating this as an approach, but Rockefeller understood something that I don’t think most American parents understand: Young people (and, let’s face it, pretty much all of us) are going to feel entitled to whatever is provided to us unconditionally. It’s human nature, after all. You can’t yell at kids for expecting nice things if you spent the first 15 or 20 years of their lives breaking your back to provide these things for them. You have to give them time to grow up.
In the meantime, you can follow at least some of Rockefeller’s example. You can make them work for at least some of their possessions. You can, over a period of years, reduce their total dependence on you. How about a checking account that you help them manage? How about saying NO to some of their requests? And never, ever, fall for the guilt-inducing plea, ‘So-and-so’s parents gave them a [fill in the blank with the latest cool thing], so why won’t you??’ I advise parents to tell their kids that this argument is never going to work, so they shouldn’t waste their breath.
So, back to the original question: Why are your things important? And why isn’t it unhealthy for you to value them? Possessions are desirable, a part of life, and should be enjoyed. But they exist for your gratification. You are supposed to control and own them, not the other way around. If you become a “psychological slave” to your possessions, you’ll never be happy unless you can have ever more of them. By definition, there’s never enough, so, therefore, you’re never happy. So-called “materialism” and capitalism unfairly get the blame for this mentality. It’s not the material things, nor the social system that allows for their production, that are at fault. What’s to blame is the mindset of the particular person caught up in this destructive cycle. Fortunately, a mindset can be changed.
Things—honestly and conscientiously earned— bring a genuine sense of reality to your hard work. Your home, your time at the beach, your car (or whatever you love) are all concrete evidence of your efforts and accomplishments. Self-esteem and personal gratification come from working for, and enjoying, what you own—whether it cost a dollar or a million dollars.
It’s not easy for kids to automatically understand something they’ve never experienced. They will better appreciate what they have if you help them create and work for more of what they have. Their sense of self-worth, AND their appreciation for what they have earned, will intensify and follow them into a happy, successful adulthood.