Renee Garfinkel
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When materialism hurts… literally

Studies show that conspicuous consumers don't handle trauma well all at all

Back in the 1980’s, the pop singer Madonna proudly sang, “We live in a material world, and I am a material girl!” The movie, Wall Street, proclaimed, “Greed is Good” and won an academy award. Materialism was in.

Well, we’ve since learned (once again) that greed is not so good, neither for the economy, nor for the society, nor, it turns out, for the individual. In fact, many studies reveal that people with a materialistic lifestyle – in which the pursuit of goods and acquisitions is highly valued – are less happy than those with less materialistic values.

The destructive impact of materialism extends far beyond its negative direct effects on well-being, as well. It turns out that materialistic values make hard times worse!

A team of Israeli and American researchers examined the impact of materialistic values on the ability to cope with trauma. They found that people who held materialistic values had the hardest time coping with major stressful events.

Ari Rindfleisch of the University of Illinois, Ayalla Ruvio, of Michigan State University, and Eli Somer, of the University of Haifa reported the results of a field study in Israel and a U.S. national survey. They found that people who are materialistic, when faced with serious, traumatic events – ranging from accidents and serious illness to terrorist attacks – experience more distress, and have a more difficult recovery.

Why should materialism amplify the effects of traumatic events? The authors suggest that materialistic individuals have lower self-esteem, which reduces their ability to cope with trauma.

Trauma was not the only experience adversely affected by materialism. The authors inquired about death anxiety, something all humans experience, and found that people who were very anxious about death (in the absence of actual imminent threat) were much like survivors of a terrorist threat. They were under extreme internal stress. And under extreme stress, highly materialistic individuals seek comfort in compulsive and impulsive consumption.

“Retail therapy” is a term that provokes a laugh, but is real for highly materialistic people. Just like comfort food or drink, and other short-term fixes, shopping may briefly reduce anxiety and lighten one’s mood. But when shopping becomes the go-to response to existential insecurity or traumatic stress, it ultimately backfires. The less materialistic individual is in a better position to recover from life’s setbacks.

Does less materialistic = more spiritual or religious? Not necessarily. As the academics might say, more research is needed.

About the Author
Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a psychologist, television commentator and podcast host of the Van Leer Series on Ideas with Renee Garfinkel