Materialism and the Philosophy of Happiness
This post will present various ideas regarding materialism in relation to human happiness. The goal of this post is to discuss the philosophy of happiness, as well as compare modern research and literature, to those from 450 B.C Greek Philosopher, Socrates. In addition, this paper also outlines various factors that contribute to the materialistic mindsets adapted by todays generations, their negative effects, and how the same philosophies from 450 B.C. can be applied to pose a solution to these very issues.
Materialism and the Philosophy of Happiness
The definition of happiness is universal and includes words such as content and pleasure. It also encompasses emotions such as joy and excitement. However, the actual understanding of what happiness is, and where it is derived from, is much more complicated. There are numerous potential factors that can impact an individual’s happiness, including economic status, culture, religion, age, education, influence, and relationships. Some people believe happiness is an end goal, some believe it is a process, while others believe it is only a beginning point. This paper seeks to understand the philosophy of happiness, and how materialism grew to become one of its biggest inhibiters.
Materialism is an attitude that focuses on material possessions, as opposed to spiritual or intellectual qualities. It comes with the constant motive to satisfy ones need to possess material items. These material items vary, and may include clothing, cars, houses, and gadgets. The reasons for the common adaptation of this mindset have both historical and contemporary factors. To briefly explain, according to Psychology Today, materialism was typical of European immigrant’s attitude to the “New World” (Taylor, 2012). Christopher Columbus discovered North America and saw the native population as an obstacle to success, wealth, and power. This mentality motivated European settlers for decades to come, resulting in exploitation of Indigenous communities and destruction of culture, tradition, and the spiritual presence that once inhabited this land. The theory presented in this article suggests that this mentality was passed down through the generations until today. Although today’s materialistic mindsets are to less of a degree than they once were in terms of violence and brutality, they nevertheless remain a contributory factor in today’s corporations, government, and mass media. The prevalence of this focus is arguably one of the main factors in today’s materialistic mentality. For example, we see product advertisements being framed in a way to persuade someone that purchasing a specific product will pose a solution for a certain issue they may have. We commonly see associations drawn between, for instance, cars and woman, makeup and aesthetics, and toys with entertainment. The constant display of these calculated relationships between products and intangible factors lead us to the delusionary and deceptive mentality we call materialism.
The human approach to a solution for materialism and its effect on happiness can be dated back to 450 B.C, where Socrates, a Greek Philosopher, spent much of his time trying to understand, question, and breakdown the idea of human happiness. One of Socrates famous quotes is: “The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less” (Socrates, 450 B.C.). This quote highlights an outlook that supports human appreciativeness and gratitude, while discouraging greed, selfishness and avarice in the pursuit of happiness. One may argue that given this quotation, Socrates believed that happiness does not come from external reward or materials, rather from internal satisfaction, appreciation, and understanding. Once that is implemented and one rids themselves of material reliance, a true sense of happiness can be achieved.
The view of driving one’s focus from achieving more “externally” to more “internally” can be directly related to one’s self-fulfillment needs. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943), the idea of self-actualization lies on the very top of the tringle, which in essence, can be translated into Maslow proposing that the last human desire, and in turn, the final frontier for happiness, is self-actualization. Self-actualization can be defined as the realization or fulfillment of one’s potentials. Under self-actualization comes self-esteem, which can be defined as an emotional evaluation of ones worth. When observing the factors that contribute to one’s self-esteem or self-actualization, many times we relate these principles with power and ownership. For example, many people adopt the view that self-worth is made up of what we wear, the house we live in, the car we drive and how much money we have. This materialistic overview on how we should feel about ourselves contributes to a lack of self esteem when these things are not present. One may feel less about themselves wearing inexpensive clothing or driving an old car. This isn’t a human instinct, rather once again, an idea that is instilled within us. One may find themselves in a cycle of constant want, blinded by the true sense of self-esteem and self-worth. In addition, rather than self-actualization being a reflection of power and societal status (external factors), true self-actualization is much better sourced from self-acceptance and emotions of content. Therefore, through Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can see the delusionary solutions to self-esteem and self-actualization that materialism provides, as well as the long term, more advantageous solutions found in non-materialistic sources of happiness.
Moreover, there are many modern-day perspectives on materialism and its effect on happiness. Today’s generations are arguably facing the highest levels of exposure to mass media and advertisements, leaving them more prone to experience emotions of greed and human materialism. Corporations invest millions of dollars a year to show their products on every possible platform ranging from social media applications, television advertisements, radio, etc. Therefore, we are constantly being fed the idea of new products, better possessions, and more convenient solutions. This continuous propaganda sold the idea that happiness can simply be purchased. Eventually, we completely lose sense of reality and most of the effect occurs subconsciously. In a book called “The Materialistic World: How to Escape Materialism”, Grade Scott, a Canadian author states: “When people become used to living in the moment and indulging their every desire, their wants keep on multiplying and they will transform themselves into a machine that either works for or swindles for the money required to fulfill those wants” (Scott, 2015). When comparing what this quote states to Socrates quote of seeking satisfaction in less, we can see that the mentality is not formed overnight, rather overtime. One occurrence of materialistic behavior does not reflect complete dependence on external factors for satisfaction and will not erode one’s opportunity to experience happiness. However, when one is blinded to the fact that material fulfilment is not truly satisfactory, it may birth a cycle of habit and repetition transforming someone from a state of self-actualization and content to, as this quote states, a machine. The only way to change this mental mutation is to reverse the outlook, and/or adopt Socrates’s secret.
An American study conducted at the University of Rochester demonstrated that materialism is only a delusional means of seeking happiness (Kasser & Ryan, 1993). It also showcased the psychological effect of materialism on overall wellbeing. The study began by conducting a questionnaire referred to as the “Aspiration Index”, allowing the participants to sort their goals and desires. They then went on to survey 360 students from the University of Rochester. Each student filled out an Aspiration Index along with four surveys measuring self-actualization, validity, depression, and anxiety. After analyzing the data, they came to an interesting conclusion that students who considered financial success a central value reported significantly lower levels of self-actualization and validity, as well as higher levels of depression and anxiety. The results from this experiment support the premise that materialistic values not only burden one’s true sense of content, but also pose negative physical and psychological effects on one’s health.
In conclusion, the philosophy of happiness is a very complex branch of philosophy that attempts to understand the moral goal of life and how human nature comes to play when seeking the true meaning of happiness. Nowadays, one of the most common misunderstandings and delusions of happiness is materialism. This mental state blinds and erodes one’s true perceptions of what happiness really is. Socrates states the secret to true happiness lies within one’s potential to seek enjoyment in less. It isn’t until one can source happiness and contentment from internal factors that they will be able to accomplish self-actualization. By controlling ones urge to constantly seek satisfaction from external forces, one is provided with an opportunity to seek more long term and efficient means of happiness. Given the various studies and articles showcased in this paper, Socrates’s secret is arguably the principal means of achieving true happiness.
Kasser, T. (2003). The high price of materialism (pp. 4-6). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT.
Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (1993). A dark side of the American dream: Correlates of financial success as a central life aspiration. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(2), 410-422.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
Scott, G. (2015). The Materialistic World: How to Escape Materialism. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, United States.
Socrates. (450 B.C.). Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://www.pursuit-of- happiness.org/history-of-happiness/socrates/
Taylor, S. (2012, March 10). The Madness of Materialism. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201203/the-madness- materialism