Fulfillment in a materialistic society
When it comes to spiritual fulfillment, each individual has their own needs. Be it through religion, relationships or even work, people develop reasons to stay active and motivated — everyone feels the need to fulfill their desires and to find their purpose. As everyone works to achieve their desires in a country that claims the “American Dream” is accessible to anyone, the system of government and economics set in place when the U.S. was founded is necessary for control and order.
The result in modern-day America is capitalism, and research shows it is so ingrained in our day-to-day life that it has a major psychological effect on happiness, spirituality and overall well-being. In fact, many experts believe that true happiness is not compatible with the values of a capitalistic economy, which encourages personal financial growth, private ownership and a free economic system.
Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College, has authored in several studies which focus on the relationship between psychology and economics.
“The evidence is quite consistent across lots of different studies, and it shows that focusing on materialistic values, which are encouraged by capitalism, actually is associated with lower levels of well-being,” Kasser said.
A 2016 psychological study authored by Kasser called “Materialistic Values and Goals” showed that people who have higher materialistic values “consume more products and incur more debt, have lower-quality interpersonal relationships, act in more ecologically destructive ways, have adverse work and educational motivation, and report lower personal and physical well-being.”
Kasser also participated in cross-cultural research studies which showed a significant difference in values between countries with differing economic systems.
“What we’ve shown now in two studies is that nations that have economic systems which are more deregulated, neoliberal, hyper-competitive — as opposed to more strategic, more regulated, more cooperative — in the former sort of nation we see higher levels of materialistic values,” Kasser said. “And America is one of the most deregulated, neoliberal, hyper-capitalist countries there is in the world.”
Cornell professor of psychology Thomas Gilovich performed four studies relating to the prominence of material goods in the lifelong quest to find happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
“We receive more enduring happiness when we focus our time and money on experiences, rather than material items,” Gilovich said.
Gilovich’s studies, which took place over decades, focus on the human psychological reactions to money, and connected the spiritual quest to be fulfilled to the influence of economics.
“In reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession,” Gilovich said in an interview for Cornell Research.
Kasser said the values of the capitalist system are ingrained in our society, similar to the way gender norms are built into our value system. To allow the system to run smoothly, capitalism needs people to have values that agree with the system — in this case, capitalism focuses on growth and maximization of profit, so Americans tend to believe that it’s important to make a lot of money and work long hours and buy a lot of possessions.
“Furthermore, once you have a lot of people with these beliefs, that leads those individuals to vote for politicians who support a more deregulated economy, it’s gonna lead them to create workplaces and school environments which inculcate the next generations to have these values, and then the value system sort of supports the societal system, and the societal system supports the value system, and it’s a cycle,” Kasser said.
Because these values are instilled so deeply in American values, Kasser added, materialism is valued more in the U.S. than any other country. But how do we identify exactly how much money and economics affects our happiness and well-being?
Ithaca College Professor of psychology Kathryn Caldwell pointed out that the relationship between money and happiness is not as direct as it may seem.
“There’s a well known curve or graph that shows that people’s happiness is associated with income to a point, but after that not,” Caldwell said. “So once all your basic needs are met — you have a house and clothing and basic human needs — then there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between happiness and money after that point. That is surprising because many people think the more money you have, the more happy you would be.”
A second study, co-authored by Kasser, relates America’s dependence on corporate capitalism to a circumflex of values, the four main categories being openness to change, self-transcendence, conservation, and self-enhancement. The study showed that these values, which interact intricately, are influenced by the values of American Corporate Capitalism (ACC). According to the study, when values associated with money-making and personal economic growth increase in a person, other values decrease because of this emphasis — and the values that decrease happen to be the values associated with happiness and spiritual fulfillment.
Kasser pointed out that placing an emphasis on materialism in our country affects more than just our own personal well-being.
“When people take on materialistic values, they tend to treat other people in less civil and nice and friendly ways, which suggests that materialism undermines other people’s’ well being,” he said. “Also, materialism is associated with lower levels of ecological well-being, which is associated with other species’ well-being and the future of humans.”
Kasser himself has made efforts to decrease the emphasis of materialism in the U.S., including campaigning for the decreasing of commercialism in children’s markets. As for the future of our country and its economic system, Kasser said he doesn’t see much changing anytime soon.
“I think there will be institutions in our country that may be focused on trying to decrease materialism. Whether our governing system will make this same effort — trends at the moment are not promising,” he said. “But history has a way of correcting itself.”
Annie Estes is a second year journalism major who thinks happiness is overrated. You can reach them at email@example.com