That they are crass, brash and trashy goes without saying. But there is something in the pictures posted on Rich Kids of Instagram (and highlighted by the Guardian last week) that inspires more than the usual revulsion towards crude displays of opulence. There is a shadow in these photos – photos of a young man wearing all four of his Rolex watches, a youth posing in front of his helicopter, endless pictures of cars, yachts, shoes, mansions, swimming pools and spoilt white boys throwing gangster poses in private jets – of something worse: something that, after you have seen a few dozen, becomes disorienting, even distressing.
The pictures are, of course, intended to incite envy. They reek instead of desperation. The young men and women seem lost in their designer clothes, dwarfed and dehumanised by their possessions, as if ownership has gone into reverse. A girl's head barely emerges from the haul of Chanel, Dior and Hermes shopping bags she has piled on her vast bed. It's captioned "shoppy shoppy" and "#goldrush", but a photograph whose purpose is to illustrate plenty seems instead to depict a void. She's alone with her bags and her image in the mirror, in a scene that seems saturated with despair.
Perhaps I'm projecting my prejudices. But an impressive body of psychological research seems to support these feelings. It suggests that materialism, a trait that can afflict both rich and poor, and which the researchers define as "a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project", is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It's associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.
There has long been a correlation observed between materialism, a lack of empathy and engagement with others, and unhappiness. But research conducted over the past few years seems to show causation. For example, a series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July showed that as people become more materialistic, their wellbeing (good relationships, autonomy, sense of purpose and the rest) diminishes. As they become less materialistic, it rises.
In one study, the researchers tested a group of 18-year-olds, then re-tested them 12 years later. They were asked to rank the importance of different goals – jobs, money and status on one side, and self-acceptance, fellow feeling and belonging on the other. They were then given a standard diagnostic test to identify mental health problems. At the ages of both 18 and 30, materialistic people were more susceptible to disorders. But if in that period they became less materialistic, they became happier.
In another study, the psychologists followed Icelanders weathering their country's economic collapse. Some people became more focused on materialism, in the hope of regaining lost ground. Others responded by becoming less interested in money and turning their attention to family and community life. The first group reported lower levels of wellbeing, the second group higher levels.
These studies, while suggestive, demonstrate only correlation. But the researchers then put a group of adolescents through a church programme designed to steer children away from spending and towards sharing and saving. The self-esteem of materialistic children on the programme rose significantly, while that of materialistic children in the control group fell. Those who had little interest in materialism before the programme experienced no change in self-esteem.
Another paper, published in Psychological Science, found that people in a controlled experiment who were repeatedly exposed to images of luxury goods, to messages that cast them as consumers rather than citizens and to words associated with materialism (such as buy, status, asset and expensive), experienced immediate but temporary increases in material aspirations, anxiety and depression. They also became more competitive and more selfish, had a reduced sense of social responsibility and were less inclined to join in demanding social activities. The researchers point out that, as we are repeatedly bombarded with such images through advertisements, and constantly described by the media as consumers, these temporary effects could be triggered more or less continuously.
A third paper, published (paradoxically) in the Journal of Consumer Research, studied 2,500 people for six years. It found a two-way relationship between materialism and loneliness: materialism fosters social isolation; isolation fosters materialism. People who are cut off from others attach themselves to possessions. This attachment in turn crowds out social relationships.
The two varieties of materialism that have this effect – using possessions as a yardstick of success and seeking happiness through acquisition – are the varieties that seem to be on display on Rich Kids of Instagram. It was only after reading this paper that I understood why those photos distressed me: they look like a kind of social self-mutilation.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons an economic model based on perpetual growth continues on its own terms to succeed, though it may leave a trail of unpayable debts, mental illness and smashed relationships. Social atomisation may be the best sales strategy ever devised, and continuous marketing looks like an unbeatable programme for atomisation.
Materialism forces us into comparison with the possessions of others, a race both cruelly illustrated and crudely propelled by that toxic website. There is no end to it. If you have four Rolexes while another has five, you are a Rolex short of contentment. The material pursuit of self-esteem reduces your self-esteem.
I should emphasise that this is not about differences between rich and poor: the poor can be as susceptible to materialism as the rich. It is a general social affliction, visited upon us by government policy, corporate strategy, the collapse of communities and civic life, and our acquiescence in a system that is eating us from the inside out.
This is the dreadful mistake we are making: allowing ourselves to believe that having more money and more stuff enhances our wellbeing, a belief possessed not only by those poor deluded people in the pictures, but by almost every member of almost every government. Worldly ambition, material aspiration, perpetual growth: these are a formula for mass unhappiness.
Twitter: @georgemonbiot. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at Monbiot.com
The effect on the Native Americans of California was catastrophic. They were driven off their traditional hunting and gathering grounds, and their rivers were polluted by gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from the new mines. Some Indian groups used force to try to protect their lands, but were massacred by the miners. Those who weren't killed by the miners slowly starved to death, or died from diseases passed on by the immigrants. Others were kept as slaves, while attractive young women were carried off to be sold. As a result, the Californian Native American population fell from around 150,000 in 1845 to 30,000 in 1870.
This savage materialism was typical of European immigrants' attitude to the ‘New World' of America. They saw it as a treasure-house of resources to ransack, and saw the native population as an inconvenient obstacle to be eradicated.
Some tribes were so confused by the colonists' insatiable desire for gold that they believed that the metal must be a kind of deity with supernatural powers. Why else would they go to such lengths to get hold of it? When an Indian chief in Cuba learned that Spanish sailors were about to attack his island, he started to pray to a chest full of gold, appealing to the ‘gold spirit' which he believed they worshipped. But the ‘gold spirit' didn't show him any mercy - the sailors invaded the island, captured the chief and burned him alive.
In some ways the gold diggers' rampant materialism was understandable, since they were living at a time of great poverty, and for many of them gold digging seemed to offer an escape from starvation. But most of us in the western, industrialized world don't have that excuse. Our appetite for wealth and material goods isn't driven by hardship, but by our own inner discontent. We're convinced that we can buy our way to happiness, that wealth is the path to permanent fulfilment and well-being. We still measure ‘success' in terms of the quality and price of the material goods we can buy, or in the size of our salaries.
Our mad materialism would be more forgivable if there was evidence that material goods and wealth do lead to happiness. But all the evidence fails to show this. Study after study by psychologists has shown that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The only exception is in cases of real poverty, when extra income does relieve suffering and brings security. But once our basic material needs are satisfied, our level of income makes little difference to our level of happiness. Research has shown, for example, that extremely rich people such as billionaires are not significantly happier than people with an average income, and suffer from higher levels of depression. Researchers in positive psychology have concluded that true well-being does not come from wealth but from other factors such as good relationships, meaningful and challenging jobs or hobbies, and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves (such as a religion, a political or social cause, or a sense of mission).
Explanations for Materialism
Many economists and politicians believe that acquisitiveness - the impulse to buy and possess things - is natural to human beings. This seems to make sense in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution: since natural resources are limited, human beings have to compete over them, and try to claim as large a part of them as possible.
One of the problems with this theory is that there is actually nothing ‘natural' about the desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, this desire would have been disastrous for earlier human beings. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers - small tribes who would usually move to a different site every few months. As we can see from modern hunter-gatherers, this way of life has to be non-materialistic, because people can't afford to be weighed down with unnecessary goods. Since they moved every few months, unnecessary goods would simply be a hindrance to them, making it more difficult for them to move.
Another theory is that the restlessness and constant wanting which fuels our materialism is a kind of evolutionary mechanism which keeps us in a state of alertness. (The psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has suggested this, for example) Dissatisfaction keeps living beings on the look out for ways of improving their chances of survival; if they were satisfied they wouldn't be alert, and other creatures would take the advantage.
In my view, acquisitiveness is best understood in psychological terms. Our mad materialism is partly a reaction to inner discontent. As human beings' it's normally for us to experience an underlying ‘psychological discord', caused by the incessant chattering of our minds, which creates a disturbance inside us, and often triggers negative thoughts. Another source of ‘psychological discord' is the strong sense of separateness many of us feel, the sense of being isolated individuals living in a world which is ‘out there', on the other side of our heads.
We look to external things to try to alleviate our inner discontent. Materialism certainly can give us a kind of happiness - the temporary thrill of buying something new, and the ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterwards. And we use this kind of happiness to try to override - or compensate for - the fundamental unhappiness inside us.
In addition, our desire for wealth is a reaction to the sense of lack and vulnerability generated by our sense of separation. This generates a desire to makes ourselves more whole, more significant and powerful. We try to ‘bolster' our fragile egos and make ourselves feel more complete by accumulating wealth and possessions.
It doesn't work, of course - or at least, it only works for a very short time. The happiness of buying or owning a new item rarely lasts longer than a couple of days. The sense of ego-inflation generated by wealth or expensive possessions can be more enduring, but it's very fragile too. It depends on comparing yourself to other people who aren't as well off as you, and evaporates if you compare yourself to someone who is wealthier than you. And no matter how much we try to complete or bolster our ego, our inner discontent and incompleteness always re-emerges, generating new desires. No matter how much we get, it's never enough. As Buddhism teaches, desires are inexhaustible. The satisfaction of one desire just creates new desires, like a cell multiplying.
The only real way of alleviating this psychological discord is not by trying to escape it, but by trying to heal it - which will have to be subject of another blog.
Steve Taylor is a psychological lecturer and the author os several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality, including The Fall, Waking From Sleep and Out of the Darkness. Eckhart Tolle has described his work as 'an important contribution to the global shift in consciousness happening at the present time.' His website is www.stevenmtaylor.com
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