On Materialism, Living Simply, and Thrill-Seeking

Alpha Consumer’s Kimberly Palmer recently posted a telling interview with professor and materialism expert Tim Kasser. Here are my favorite excerpts:

Kasser: (I found) that when people were especially focused on goals that pertained to money and possessions and wealth, they were less happy.

A materialistic lifestyle tends to perpetuate feelings of insecurity, to lead people to hinge their competence on pretty fleeting, external sources, to damage relationships, and to distract people from the more fun, more meaningful, and freer ways of living life.

I would encourage people to ask themselves why they really want whatever thing it is they think they want and then to ask themselves two questions. First, is it really worth all the work and effort and such that it takes to get that thing? Is a $4 latte worth the effort it took to make the money to buy it? Second, what are the social and ecological costs of this thing I want? Does buying this fit with my values, with what I think is really good for the world?

Is the $4 latte worth the work it takes to buy it? Yes, if you like your job, and the latte comes at just the right time of day to taste like a liquid slice of heaven.

One thing I rarely see included in descriptions of materialism is sensation-seeking behavior
, such as foreign travel or extreme sports. For example, I’ve always been stuff-averse, but have spent large amounts of money on things that satisfy me mentally and emotionally, such as travel to exotic destinations, or ski passes.

Am I materialistic in the traditional sense? No. I don’t accumulate stuff. However, I do purchase experiences, which often cost more than physical possessions.

Here’s my fundamental question
: If you skimp on physical objects representative of traditional materialism, such as TVs, gadgets, and leather couches, but spend large amounts of money on concert tickets, exotic vacations, and other sensation-seeking experiences, are you still a materialist?

What do you consider yourself?

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  • I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with giving yourself *some* level of creature comforts, whether in the form of physical possessions or entertaining thrills. Both can be considered materialistic.

    The basic problem with too much materialism relates to how comfortable we are with ourselves. If we’re not comfortable with who we are, when we are and where we are, our brains tend to seek satisfaction externally.

    Socially, materialism seems to manifest mostly when people are missing some kind of spiritual or emotional grounding. Also, when the pace of life quickens, stress levels increase and so do the distractions. Seeking out things or thrills is the brains way of filling some empty hole in our souls.

    Having some sort of daily or weekly ritual to appreciate things as they are, to appreciate simply being alive, is an important part of keeping our materialistic urges within healthy limits.

    It’s OK to be materialistic (we are made of material things after all); it’s just a matter of keeping perspective. So it’s not so much materialism as it is your frame of mind. Denying ourselves some material comfort is just as unhealthy as gorging. Balance is the golden mean.

  • I think it depends on why you buy something. Are you doing it because it will enrich your life or because you want to impress the neighbors?

    We shouldn’t be driven to materialism to impress others. This does lead to insecurity (emotional and financial). That being said we should not apologize for doing well and enjoying the fruits of our labors!

    I wrote a post a while back on this topic: The Real Housewives of Orange County…In Houston Texas.

  • Matt

    I call it being a “prioritized consumer”. I’ve never stepped foot in a Starbucks (probably the only American who hasn’t) and refuse to let the blitzkrieg of advertising skew my vision of savings.

    However, I’ve been known to go all out on a trip to Mexico or update a kitchen (major expense) because I feel it’s a worthwhile expenditure. Think quality over quantity and keep your eye on the prize!

  • JoyfulC

    My husband and I were active in a sport for years (him over 30, me about 24). It ate up huge chunks of time and money, leaving little left over for anything else. I guess I’d think of that as being more hedonistic than materialistic — we used to joke that we were grasshoppers, not ants. We always had to live very frugally all those years, but the funny thing is, when we quit the sport and no longer had to make such material sacrifices, we found that we actually enjoy being frugal and not very materialistic. Instead of treating ourselves to more material stuff like better computers or big screen TVs or other expensive hedonistic pursuits like travel or eating out, we saw the opportunity to scale back how much we had to work so we had more time just to get into our home and each other. It’s an incredibly sweet life, and the tax burden is waaaayyy lower. Bonus!