Progress is a good thing!

Around the holidays, people ask me all the time about ‘greed’ and why the Season has become ‘materialistic.’ Well, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as ‘materialism.’ All of us need and want material things. It’s only a matter of degree. When I hear that someone is a ‘materialist,’ I don’t immediately assume that they value material things too much. What I think is that they are a slave to their possessions.

Material things exist for YOUR pleasure, not the other way around. It might sound crazy to suggest that material objects—cars, houses, clothes, etc.—can actually control people, but that’s precisely my point: Material objects do control some people simply because they allow them to do so.

It’s perfectly fine to enjoy life and celebrate it by enjoying some material things. But it’s quite another to feel like you MUST have more and more all the time in order to keep up or somehow be complete. At that point, the things begin to control you.

This issue becomes more apparent during hard economic times. Some people struggle to keep food on the table and the mortgage paid, while others just cut back on ‘discretionary’ spending. I’m not making light of bad economic times, but how well you cope with cutting back is an indication of how trapped you are by your trappings. Let me remind you that this is not a lecture on the ‘evils of materialism’: I don’t buy into that concept. We all need to experience material progress, and shouldn’t have to endure economic setbacks as the norm. In a society where people are committed to being free, productive and self-responsible, progress is a good thing! But that progress should be for ourselves, not for the sake of the things we own.

Dependence on material things can frequently result from feelings of inadequacy. A ‘Psychology Today’ article described the profile of a real-life person in Manhattan. She ‘believes her own materialism is rooted in shameful feelings about her home life: She grew up poor, raised by grandparents with Depression-era values who forced her to wash tinfoil for reuse. Her outstanding abilities as a soccer player gave her entr to exclusive team clubs, and through those [she] was exposed to the homes and lifestyles of very wealthy people. She felt inadequate in comparison. Buying things—the right things—later became a way for her to attain a sense of parity.’

Feelings of inadequacy often drive people to acquire material things for the wrong reasons, including appearing (or feeling) better than others, an irrational fear of rejection, or a pointless need to compete. Things should add to your life and exist for your own pleasure. Things are to be owned. Once they own you, you’re in trouble!

Another unhealthy use for material things is to reduce anxiety. Life can be an anxious place, and shopping and buying what you need is a perfectly legitimate way to distract yourself and calm down. But shopping should not be an excuse for refusing to recognize what’s causing you to be anxious in the first place. If you’re buying things you realize you can’t afford and didn’t really need, then ask yourself: ‘What am I really anxious about?’ Put a hold on shopping until you figure it out. Hide your credit card—do whatever it takes.

Capitalism and business get the blame for people’s shopping compulsions. That’s like blaming air for the fact that people say stupid things. ‘If it weren’t for all that air, people wouldn’t breathe and therefore couldn’t say dumb things!’ Getting rid of air is not the solution for stupid statements, just as getting rid of capitalism and freedom isn’t the solution for foolish actions. Businesses exist to please customers at a profit. If customers decide something is no longer profitable, businesses will stop doing it. We have to look at our own actions and attitudes. Blaming others is the easy way out and doesn’t solve anything.

Here’s a solution: Make a list of inexpensive ways to be happy. Make the list as long as possible. Try to think of things that cost little or no money, like reading and walking along the beach. Should you sometimes spend money on things you like? Of course! Material things have their place, but they’re not the only way to experience pleasure and fulfillment in life. It’s not about ‘making do with less’; it’s about expanding the range of ways you can enjoy life and become less dependent on money in the process.

During good and bad economic times, people are concerned about living within their means. Figuring out how NOT to let material objects control you is a great way to ensure that you can live within your means. If you simply must have unlimited access to spending in order to be happy and reduce anxiety, then you’re going to eventually run out. Why live that way? The trappings of life are part of life—just so you don’t get trapped by the trappings.