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December 10, 2013

One Rolex Short of Contentment

Materialism promises satisfaction. It delivers despair.

By George Monbiot


That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in
the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last
week(1)) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of
opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all
four of his Rolex watches(2), a youth posing in front of his helicopter(3), endless
pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools, spoilt white boys throwing
gangster poses in private jets – of something worse; something that, after you have
seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.

The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of
desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed
and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl’s
head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she
has piled onto her vast bed(4). It’s captioned “shoppy shoppy” and “#goldrush”, but a
photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She’s
alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with

Perhaps I am projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological
research appears to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that
can afflict both rich and poor, which the researchers define as “a value system that is
preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project”(5), is both socially
destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those
who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy
and engagement with others, and unhappiness(6,7,8). But research conducted over
the past few years appears to show causation.

For example, a series of studies published in June in the journal Motivation and
Emotion showed that as people become more materialistic, their well-being (good
relationships, autonomy, a sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes(9). As they
become less materialistic, it rises.

In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12
years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals: jobs, money
and status on one side, self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other.
They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At
the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders.
But if in that period they became less materialistic, their happiness improved.

In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country’s
economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of
regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and
turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower
levels of well-being, the second group higher levels(10).

These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers
then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer
children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of
materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic
children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before
the programme experienced no change in self-esteem(11).

Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled
experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages
which cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with
materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but
temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression(12). They also
became more competitive, more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility
and were less inclined to join demanding social activities. The researchers point out
that as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and
constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be
triggered more or less continuously.

A third paper, published (ironically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied
2,500 people for six years(13). It found a two-way relationship between materialism
and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism.
People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This
attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.

The two varieties of materialism which have this effect – using possessions as a
yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition – are the varieties
that seem to be on display at Rich Kids of Instagram. It was only after reading this
paper that I understood why those photos distressed me: they look like a kind of
social self-mutilation.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why an economic model based on perpetual
growth continues on its own terms to succeed, though it may leave a trail of
unpayable debts, mental illness and smashed relationships. Social atomisation may
be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an
unbeatable programme for atomisation.

Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both
cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If
you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment.
The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.

I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor
can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited
upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and
civic life and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.

This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that more
money and more stuff enhances our well-being, a belief possessed not only by those
poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every
government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a
formula for mass unhappiness.






5. Monika A. Bauer et al, 2012. Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism
Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being. Psychological Science  23: 517.
DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429579.

6. eg

7. Tamas Martos and Maria S. Kopp, 2012. Life Goals and Well-Being: Does Financial
Status Matter? Evidence from a Representative Hungarian Sample. Social Indicators
Research, 105: 561–568. DOI 10.1007/s11205-011-9788-7


9. Tim Kasser et al, 2013. Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-
being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment.
Motivation and Emotion. DOI 10.1007/s11031-013-9371-4

10. Tim Kasser et al, 2013, as above.

11. Tim Kasser et al, 2013, as above.

12. Monika A. Bauer et al, 2012. Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism
Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being. Psychological Science  23: 517.
DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429579.

13. Rik Pieters, 2013. Bidirectional Dynamics of Materialism and Loneliness: Not Just
a Vicious Cycle. Journal of Consumer Research, DOI: 10.1086/671564. http://www.