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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 04/11/2007 | 2 Comments

Just finished reading ‘The High Price of Materialism’ by Tim Kasser. He is a psychology lecturer at Knox College in the US. Unlike most academics who like to maintain a veneer of objectivity in their work Kasser is a self-confessed ‘activist’. As well as his research on materialism he is involved in various campaigns – e.g. for a commercial free childhood.

Kasser’s research shows that materialism is becoming more and more a driving force in modern life. In the late 1960s the number of students in the US who said that it was important to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ was over 80 per cent. Thirty years later it had fallen to 40 per cent.

Kasser defines materialism as the pursuit of money, fame or image (ie appearance). When we think about how much these things are promoted through advertising and the mass media it is easy to see why materialism should be so much the spirit of the age.

Kasser quotes extensive research which shows that pursuing materialistic goals undermines people’s well-being as it is damaging for their physical and psychological health. Part of the problem with materialism is that it is often deeply unfulfilling for people. Consumerism often feels like an endless treadmill. Materialism also encourages people to do things which are unlikely to benefit their well-being. For example, in pursuit of fame or fortune people will take on demanding jobs requiring extensive commuting or long hours and this then deprives them of time to spend with their family or friends.

Tim Kasser is not saying that material goods have no value or that we should not care a whit about how we look or are seen by others. However, he argues that if we get these goals out of perspective, rather than enhancing our lives, they undermine it.

This type of argument, based on extensive empirical research, is at the heart of many Positive Psychology books, including Seligman’s Authentic Happiness. This is why Positive Psychologists are interested in challenging common assumptions by adumbrating the conditions for good, flourishing lives.

Paradoxically some of the new assumptions underlying Positive Psychology were shaken at the Positive Psychology Summit held in Washington last month. The polling organisation Gallup have been supporters of PP and have hosted the international summit on the topic for the last few years. This year they presented their first ‘world poll’ on ‘The state of global well-being’. This is an impressive poll of opinion in over 130 countries and areas which represent more than 95 per cent of the world’s population.

Gallup asked a set of questions about well-being which attempt to gauge the person’s emotional experience to life the day before. The responses were linked only marginally to money. Some countries with fairly high incomes scored lower than much poorer countries.

However, much to the consternation and confusion of some delegates Gallup’s data showed that in the other question on life-satisfaction the biggest predictor of life-satisfaction was GDP. However, if you look at how they asked about life-satisfaction it is not surprising that they found ‘an almost positive linear relationship’ between life-satisfaction and GDP. This is the question: “Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder (10) represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder (0) represents the worst possible life for you.” The question then goes on to ask the respondent which step of the ladder they stand on personally at the present time.

Even for people who haven’t thought very much about cultures, or ever filled in pop personality tests based on shapes, it is not difficult to see that this question is essentially one about status. It is indirectly asking people to think about life-satisfaction in materialistic terms. Few people answering this ladder question would think about their relationships in these terms. Indeed Gallup tells us that this question uses a ‘Self-Anchoring Striving Scale’. Striving is just not a word that fits with relationships or even health. It is as Kasser would say inevitably going to tap into people’s definition of ‘the Goods life’ as opposed to the Good life.

Those interested in looking at the Gallup poll can find it by following the link below:

Comment By Comment
Lionel Mills
Joined: 06/11/2007

Comment Posted: 06/11/2007 17:27
I agree that advertisers deliberately try to create a need (they would say market) and without being sexist, women's cosmetics must cause untold damage to the self esteem of so many females. However, we must remember that we are the progeny of a long line of ancestors who had to strive to accumulate. Indeed, I believe that one of the distinguishing features of the male/female divide is that us males are optimistic and always ready for a party (or as hunters we would have never risked death to `bring home the bacon'),. Whereas, it is our rather more pessimistic wives who (being responsible for getting us through the coming winter) insist that we should be a little more circumspect before we raid the larder. So `accumulating' is deeply engrained into our emotions, as is `being useful' and as well as `looking good to our fellow men' (or how would charities function).
I don't think it has to be either or `Goods or Good', surely we are impelled to satisfy our own and our family's needs first (which is certainly a satisfying thing to do), but after that, we can satisfy the less family-focussed needs of self and society. As regards people taking on demanding jobs in pursuit of fame or fortune, status seeking is just as much part of our make up as the chickens pecking order. I don't imagine that Gordon Brown needed any persuasion to step into Tony's shoes.
It should be no surprise that wealthy people are happier than poor despite the badly designed question; they are probably more intelligent and more beautiful too. Only in fairy tales do the good genes get distributed equally. One of my main concerns is that an educational system that continually monitors performance also continually tells 50% of children that they are less than average! Is it any wonder that they get depressed and don't want to go to school?
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