Money as the cure for materialism?

Ever since it became possible for humans to acquire more wealth than was needed for survival social critics have been warning against its corrupting effects. These days the warning even comes with some evidence, as Sacha Molitorisz notes in last weekend’s papers. During the week there was another paper, this time by U of M academic Bruce Headey and others, showing that material with materialistic goals are less happy.

Headey’s work has been particularly important because it uses longitudinal studies, in this case a German study, to see long-term effects. He’s particularly concerned with challenging the setpoint theory of happiness, that people have a ‘natural’ level of happiness linked strongly to their personality type, and that few people will move beyond their setpoint for prolonged periods of time.

The figure below, taken from the article in the second link, shows that using 5-year averages of life satisfaction and comparing it with successive 5 year periods from 1984-89 to 2004-08 that substantial minorities do undergo significant long-term changes in their self-reported well-being.

Materialistic attitudes are a negative for long-term happiness. But it’s not clear to me that Headey’s research has answered the key question of whether changing those attitudes makes a significant difference to long-term happiness, and if so whether the change is due to re-assessing life priorities or to achieving material goals, allowing other things to rise in importance.

Molitorisz, like many of the social critics in this area, infers attitudes from behaviour. Sydney is full of wealth and glitz, therefore its people are materialistic and making themselves unhappy. But the research finds that it isn’t how rich you are that matters – every study finds that rich people are on average happier than poor people. It is what psychological emphasis you put on material success that affects your subjective well-being.

Generally speaking, poor people are more materialistic than rich people – a lack of money has more of an impact on their lives than it does for the well-off, and so they prioritise improving their financial situation. Paradoxically, one cure for materialism is wealth. In the short to medium term at least, prioritising money-making may be a sensible life strategy in establishing the material conditions for future well-being.

6 thoughts on “Money as the cure for materialism?

  1. Headey et al themselves say:”..there may be some reverse causation at work. Happiness may affect life choices, as well as vice versa.” (p.4)
    But even if changing attitudes can change long-term happiness, how do policy-makers change attitudes? Many of the advocates of anti-materialism such as Clive Hamilton and the Australia Institute propose increasing top marginal tax rates or limiting working hours. But while these measures might discourage work, it is not clear they would discourage materialism.


  2. Rajat – Indeed, attitudes are hard to change. But so too is behaviour. Higher marginal tax rates could encourage more work as people try to maintain their living standards. At least in the short term, in the absence of changed attitudes, that is the more likely outcome.


  3. “showing that material with materialistic goals are less happy”
    Or should that be “people with un-realistically materialistic goals are less happy”? My colleagues have been mostly women and they shop a lot. They pay a lot of attention to shoes and clothes, they visit IKEA, they spend a lot of time online looking at hotels they might stay in for their next holiday.
    A lot of this stuff can be cheap and affordable and being absorbed in it keeps people happy. But there are other people who keep buying more than they can’t afford, who measure themselves by the things others have, or the looks others have, and they are not so happy because they’ll never be able to achieve what they desire. Self-discipline is also part of their problem, and the lack of it has consequences in all aspects of their life.


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