“The old fable continues to echo down the centuries. The waiting rooms of psychiatrists are filled with rich and successful patients who, in their forties or fifties, suddenly wake up to the fact that a plush suburban home, expensive cars, and even an Ivy League education are not enough to bring peace of mind. Yet people keep hoping that changing the external conditions of their lives will provide a solution. If only they could earn more money, be in better physical shape, or have a more understanding partner, they would really have it made. Even though we recognize that material success may not bring happiness, we engage in an endless struggle to reach external goals, expecting that they will improve life.” – Enjoyment and the Quality of Life (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
“Money doesn’t buy happiness.” It’s a phrase often repeated to you when you’re little. Time and time again, you’re taught that it is the big things – trust, compassion, hope, and love – that really matter in the end. However, somewhere along the way, a different storyline begins to emerge. A new dialogue is created – one that focuses on money, and particularly the accumulation of worldly possessions – as the root of all happiness. It is a story told by commercials. Advertisements. Department store catalogues. Yet, individuals’ levels of happiness have remained relatively the same in the last decade, even though the United State’s per-capita GDP has increased by more than 50%. So that begs the question – why do we keep buying into the fallacy? Isn’t it about time we admit to ourselves the glaringly obvious truth? Materialism doesn’t work.
Materialism has long played a role in American society. We are a culture focused on the tangible. The here and now. Pleasure and practicality are at the forefront of our existence. We’re always searching for ways to make our lives easier, more comfortable, more enjoyable.
The reality is that for many Americans (certainly not all), but for a significant portion, our basic needs are met. We are fortunate enough to have access to things such as food, water, and adequate shelter. We’re afforded a life of relative comfort. Our survival needs are complete. Yet, we’re still not content. The problem becomes that once all of life’s basic problems are solved, new needs are felt. New desires arise. The inevitable truth is that with rising affluence comes rising expectations. Materialism becomes our quick fix. Our temporary thrill. It becomes part of our identity.
To be honest with you, it’s slightly unfair to blame it all on materialism. It’s not the only culprit. The problem is that materialism is wrapped up within a larger family of extrinsic goals (such as achieving financial success, attractiveness, and popularity), all which emphasize things such as rewards and the need for social approval. Extrinsic goals are contingent on the positive evaluation of others, and consequently the materialistic-seeking individual is often left feeling unsatisfied, frustrated, and/or disappointed when things don’t go their way.
So while I hate to break it to you, your mother was right. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It never has, and it probably never will. Can it bring you short-lived feelings of jubilation? Sure. Life satisfaction? Not so much. At the end of the day, it’s a temporary solution, a cover-up, a bandage of sorts. It’s not meant to last. What does last? Building strong relationships. Engaging in meaningful jobs and hobbies. Finding a purpose that’s greater than yourself. The glaringly obvious, yet all-too-often-ignored truth? Happiness comes from within.