The holidays are just around the corner, and soon people will be asking me about greed and why the season is so “materialistic.” My answer is often met with varying levels of acceptance. In other words, 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, my impression is that they’re a slave to their possessions.
Material things exist for our pleasure, not the other way around. It might sound crazy to suggest that objects can control people, but material things control some people simply because they allow them to. It’s perfectly fine to celebrate life by enjoying physical possessions. But it’s quite another to feel like you’ve got to have more and more “stuff” in order to keep up. That’s when the things start to control you.
This issue can become 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. Again, this is not a lecture on the “evils” of materialism. I don’t buy into that. We all need to experience progress, and economic setbacks shouldn’t be the norm. Progress like we currently enjoy is certainly a good thing in a society where people are committed to being free, productive and self-responsible. But progress should be for ourselves, not for the sake of the things we own.
Dependence on material things can result from feelings of inadequacy. An article in Psychology Today described a woman in Manhattan who “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 [in sports] gave her entrée to exclusive team clubs, and through those [she] was exposed to the lifestyles of wealthy people. She felt inadequate in comparison. Buying the right things became a way for her to attain a sense of parity.”
Feelings of inadequacy can drive people to acquire material things in order to appear better than others, or because of an irrational fear of rejection. Things exist for your pleasure. They are to be owned. Once they own you, you’re in trouble.
Another unhealthy reason for acquiring material things is to reduce anxiety. Buying what you need is a good way to distract yourself and relax. But shopping shouldn’t be a way to ignore what’s causing you to be anxious in the first place. If you’re buying things you can’t afford, ask yourself, “What am I really anxious about?” Hide the credit cards until you figure it out.
Capitalism and business get the blame for people’s shopping compulsions. That’s like blaming air for the fact that people say stupid 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 spending. Businesses exist to please customers and make a profit. If customers decide something is no longer profitable, businesses will stop doing it. The fault lies with our own actions. Blaming others is just an easy way out.
Make a list of inexpensive ways to be happy, 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 be fulfilled. It’s not about “making do with less”; it’s about becoming less dependent on money as the way to enjoy life.
People are always concerned about living within their means, and making sure objects don’t control you is a way to ensure that you can do that. If you must have unlimited access to spending in order to be happy, then you’re going to eventually run out. Why live that way? The trappings of life can be a big part of life — but be careful not to get trapped by the trappings.
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