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A materialist is someone whose life is centered around acquiring more goods.  Materialists correlate their happiness with their possessions. They claim that these products are the key source of their life fulfillment and a representation of their success in life.  The question, “Would owning more things make me happier?” is typically answered with a decisive yes! For materialists, more is always better. But when you look further into materialism, is accumulating stuff what really makes them happy?

Research has been done to prove that materialists who believe their possessions define their happiness are, in fact, wrong.  This research has further shown that materialists are frequently disappointed and unsatisfied. As a whole, materialists endure higher amounts of loneliness, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and low self-esteem.

These findings validate what most of us have always known about materialists, but they also give us a unique perspective.  In the July Issue of Personality and Individual Differences, Jo-Ann Tsang, from Baylor University’s department of psychology and neuroscience, asked the basic question:  Why are materialists less happy?

The answer appears to be that materialists are not content with their lives due to lack of gratitude.  As Oprah Winfrey avowed, they place an emphasis on what they don’t have rather than being thankful for what they do. This inability to focus on what is positive and present in their life becomes a barrier to getting their psychological needs met, which in turn limits their life satisfaction.

The emptiness they feel is driven by unrealistically high expectations regarding a new possession they plan to acquire.  A previous study showed that materialists felt increased levels of anticipation for an affirmative emotional reaction when compared to non-materialists.  If the reaction isn’t what they’d hoped for, their positivity drops.

Pursuing new items to purchase becomes a frantic attempt to preserve happiness and positive mindsets.  Yet over and over again the outcome is continuous frustration and lack of gratitude for the things they already own.

A lot of widespread and dynamic research has been done on gratitude.  Most often, state vs. trait gratitude are often observed. State gratitude is short-term, and trait defines the frequency of experiencing it.  

When you have a sense of gratitude, it improves your well-being.  Gratitude can improve one’s self-esteem, life satisfaction, prosocial behavior, and interpersonal relationships.  When you have gratitude, you feel more closely connected to others. Major scholars have found that gratitude directly encourages our happiness and helps lead us to maintained joy. 

The research found that materialism reduced trait gratitude and need satisfaction.  They postulated that it would be challenging to assess materialism and gratitude simultaneously, meaning that an increase in materialism would mean a decline in gratitude, along with the benefits that are linked to it.  Materialists that experience a lower sense of gratitude would have unfulfilled psychological needs. 

The research observed 246 male and female marketing students that completed self-report measures online of materialism, gratitude, need satisfaction, and life satisfaction.  According to the authors, “Our results suggested that a considerable proportion of the relationship between materialism and decreased life satisfaction can be explained by the decreased gratitude that high materialists experience, and the resultant decreases in basic psychological needs.”

However, the authors did mention that their work does not completely confirm that gratitude affects materialism.  Further research would need to be completed to prove that.  

Those involved in the research provided some insight into how they think materialism and gratitude are linked:  “We suspect that the relationship between materialism and gratitude is most likely bidirectional: increases in materialism can lead individuals to be less grateful for what they already have, but increases in gratitude might also lessen materialism and its detrimental effects.”

In regard to their statement, it would be valuable to seek things that increase your feeling of gratitude.  When you do things to directly increase gratitude, it improves your well-being. Two great approaches are keeping a gratitude journal and writing thank you letters to people you feel grateful for.  

Helping materialists fulfill their psychological needs in ways other than buying stuff can be extremely beneficial to not only them, but you too!  This seems to be a meaningful effort, since as George Carlin says, “Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over your body.”

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