The High Price of Materialism Essay

In American Culture today, the extreme emphasis and competitive drive toward the abundance of consumerism and materialism rules our society as a whole. Stepping back from our wants, our needs are much different then what we are striving for. In Tim Kasser’s eye opening book, The High Price of Materialism, the author takes a scientific and very modern approach to this world wide epidemic that is costing people their happiness. Kasser explains how people who value and put priority on materialism often have a greater risk of being unhappy and acquiring psychological problems such as depression or anxiety.

These accumulations of wealth and often petty desires have an effect on our internal well being. With this, Tim Kasser explains the problem and correlation between materialism and our own well-being, while offering an answer to the change needed within our society, our country, and an insane, indulged culture. As I look around my community I see good people, a small town with much to offer. As I look into my own life, I see a good person with much to offer. My community, my family, and my nation I look at in a positive light.

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However, with that said, we lack a major fundamental reasoning skill. This skill is the ability to prioritize and acknowledge what is most important and vital for the survival and psychological health of the human species. In my everyday life, like a typical female in American society currently, I love to shop, a harmless activity. Gazing further, however, I have come to realize I need to take a moment and fully understand what empty space I am filling with my materialistic wants.

These are not needs I understand, but somehow, for a quick moment, having a new purse or dress makes me happy. Why is this so? I wanted to understand not only my desires as a human being, but America’s and most of the world’s desire for needless possessions. These possessions are excess and waste. They are not basic food, shelter, or warm clothing. Fashion is at an all time high in major countries such as the United Stated and Europe, and most females especially thrive on this. But the obsessions do not stop there.

Men work fifty hours a week to pay off a brand new sports car, while young adolescents in high school and college need the new phone or electronic device. I believe social prestige is to blame. Americans wants and desires are mainly to climb up the social latter. Second to social stratification would be convenience. As our society moves faster and “improves” everyday, convenient tools such as the Iphone come into play. Tim Kasser takes a very valid approach to recognizing the downfall of these wants, and how high the cost to these kinds of accumulation habits can be.

As stated in chapter one of The High Price of Materialism, materialistic values distract of us from what is truly meaningful in our lives. The author states that the messages we think are right, such as the accumulation of stuff, trick us into thinking deep satisfactions are on the horizon. Contrary to these media messages and constant advertisements, psychological constraints actually reside in the future of these societies. As a consumeristic society, America is the focal point of this downfall.

Family values are now in the background of politician’s minds, and economic decisions now play the forefront of major decisions made in large scale, capitalistic governments. Plainly enough, qualities such as self-expression, deep relationships, and contributions to one’s own society are the “core notions of psychological health,” (Kasser 2002: 3) as stated by the author. In addition, materialistic priorities over relationships often lead to trade offs in marriages and friendships, ultimately distracting both people from actual psychological desires and needs.

My personal well-being and the well-being of my family and friends have value to me. So, the studies done in chapter two of the book intrigued me. Regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or ethnicity, valuing materialistic behavior was across the board unhealthy. Goals for financial success lead to unhealthy mental problems. These studies have opened my mind to what really matters, and makes me question my own life. Do my friendships and loved ones mean more to me, or does financial success dominate my life?

Easily said, my relationships are the most important. Easily changeable considering I love fashion and shop almost every week? Not so much. This brings celebrities and marketing to attention. As stated in the book by Kasser, the “underlying message is that owning these products will enhance our image and ensure our popularity with others” (Kasser 2002: 9). These values also connect us with the notion of fame, money, and social image. Currently, this gives people a sense of worth and value. So, there is a orrelation between having things and how we feel, making them seem important, making them seem like a necessity. As human beings, we obviously tend to make our own feelings and emotions important, and with such products betrayed by the media and mass advertisements as being the underlying cause of a healthy well-being and self-worth, of course people are going to gravitate toward such advertised products. However, self-actualization and vitality was researched and reported at lower numbers with a high focus on such consumeristic values.

According to a study that used the Aspiration Index (a questionnaire that measures people’s values), pursuits of possessions actually affected people’s everyday lives, and “decreased the quality of their daily experience” (Kasser 2002: 12). Values such as striving for economic perfection or buying the latest phone seem a little less fun to me. Enough said, Tim Kasser further explains the relationship between negative relationships and the focus on consumerism. All ages and genders were affected equally. The author summarizes his correlation with materialism and quality of life with the word “diminished. Personal well-being has diminished over the years with the rise of economic values. The patterns are very clear that image is important in our society today, while holding onto wealth plays a vital role as well. America no longer embodies freedom as the key word to describe our nation, but now depicts wealth, money, and power. And people are okay with it. Low well-being is the direct cause of such values, and eventually leads to antisocial behavior. Survival needs include water, shelter, food, and other bare necessities such as warm clothing. Psychological needs are controversial and sometimes not characterized as needs.

Needs are scientifically defined as the physical requirements that must be met to ensure survival. However, the author explains, that some researchers are using psychological needs to further understand and investigate human motivation and well-being. Optimal functioning, the author explains, in conjunction with growth and survival is a necessity. Wants and desires are not. So what motivates us from survival needs to our desires to easily? I believe it is because of our standard of living. My standard of living is very high if you compare it to someone in what is considered a poor country.

This does not mean I am mentally better off, but my basic survival necessities are set. I do not hunt for food, I hunt for bargains. I do not build houses, I build by education. I do not purify water, I purify myself. I believe this directly leads us to seek out something else. Especially in America, we are constantly moving forward. If we are not progressing in technology and innovation, America feels like we are losing. The author makes his own point by saying, “…needs direct us to behave in ways that increase the likelihood that we will be satisfied.

Thus needs motivate behavior and require fulfillment for psychological growth to occur” (Kasser 2002: 24). I completely agree. Necessities motivate our behavior. The author sets out four basic need sets: the need for safety, security, and sustenance, the need for competence, efficacy, and self-esteem, the need for connectedness, and the need for autonomy and authenticity. Quality of life and multiple psychological perspectives have been taken into consideration with these established need sets. However, these needs are relatively unsatisfied when a high value is put upon consumption and large economic success.

The first need set, safety, security, and sustenance, is defined as food, basic shelter, and the protection from weather and harm. As adolescents, our protection comes from our parents, and the trust that they will feed and help us survive. The author further explains security, meaning the desire to stay alive and avoid events that may lead to our death. This all comes at a young age, when we are most vulnerable. Particularly in industrious countries, basic survival needs such as food and water are not even thought of. I, as a healthy American, have never once in my life worried about getting adequate food, shelter, or water.

It is not even on my mind, sad to say. I am aware that other people in other areas of the world do worry about basic survival needs. Maybe this is why we have such a focus on non-important, frivolous things such as fashion because in actuality we are not forced to worry about such things as food. Our culture as well allows us to adapt to certain, harsh environments such as extreme hot or cold weather. Again, even if you are considered poor in America, most have shelter or can find free shelter in large cities. Our biological needs are being helped by our culture.

Kasser also states that insecurities arise from families that do not satisfy this need set. For example, if a child does not feel secure at home, they may seek out another form of security through accumulation of wealth and possessions. Studies show this to be true. Insecurities come also come from poverty, death, and non-nurturing parents, as outlined in the text. Furthermore, this can lead to an emphasis on materialism, also leading to decreased happiness and satisfaction. Although true, the author states, “these values lead people into experiences that work against the satisfaction of other important needs” (Kasser 2002: 42).

The second need set explained in the novel is the need for competence, efficacy, and self-esteem. In Kasser’s defined words, “the second need set involves a feeling that we are capable of doing something we set out to do and of obtaining the things we value” (Kasser 2002: 24). This is extremely apparent in America today and especially California. As Americans, we feel it is our obligation to set up goals for ourselves and achieve them. The American Dream stands because of this concept. To fulfill such needs, human beings must have self-esteem and competence.

There is this fake persona known today in America, and we rely on it to stay upbeat about our situation. Even with a recession, people look forward and know we will get better economically. Hope is a major word used in our country today, and especially in California, people have been working harder than ever to achieve their economic goals and their own American Dream. Efficiency is the United States. We at least see ourselves at efficient, progressive individuals, always looking forward, never to the side. This only fuels consumerism, which leads to an unsatisfied mind.

In addition, you would think that reaching your goals would raise your self-esteem, but when your goals involve money and possessions, the opposite is true. There is a lack of fulfillment and self-worth actually declines. Even if economic goals are reached, one’s happiness does not increase. I find this interesting because I think I had all the money in the world to do what I want, I would be happy, but Kasser is proving me otherwise. This short fulfillment of an economic goal would be superficial, just like how I would feel apparently if I won the lottery.

Sooner or later, money would not make me happy. Emptiness would pursue, and I would probably think I would need more. Reading Kasser’s words have helped me to understand this. The third need set, outlined in Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism, involves the need for relationships, more specifically, the need for connectedness. Humans need intimacy and closeness in order to fulfill a psychological need. Strong relationships, as stated by the author, lead us to form bonds into larger groups, such as communities, clubs, or church groups.

The feeling of belonging to something is essential. I know in my life, as independent as I am, my friends and family support me in times of stress and anxiety. However true, being a consumer in America and having relationships has its trade offs. “People who focus on materialistic aims often do so at the ‘expense’ of their relationships” (Kasser 2002: 61) as plainly stated by Kasser. Even researchers have reported a decrease in participants in community organizations and groups. These numbers were higher in capitalistic countries, which revolve around consumerism.

Other studies indicate materialistic people experience more isolation in their relationships then non-materialistic people. It is safe to say that emphasis on consumption and wealth leads to a decline in personal relationships and closeness with other humans, a sad but very real thing. The fourth and last need set defined by Kasser is the need for autonomy and authenticity. This means we strive for freedom and our own opportunities to experience life in a self-directed approach. Personal interests are key here. Authenticity comes from ownership of our own behavior, our own responsibility.

Americans, we value freedom and our basic rights. We also are seen as independent and self-driven. According to Kasser though, people who value prestige and wealth more, put less emphasis on freedom and authenticity. This comes surprising because in the depiction of the United States, these come hand in hand. So, the author suggests that they work against each other now. I find this interesting. I had no idea that leading a materialistic lifestyle could actually decrease my emphasis on self-direction and freedom, and also make me directed toward shopping and watching TV more.

It is not that I disagree, it is just surprising. I am all for self-direction and freedom. This definitely makes me want to rethink my life! Materialism leads the life of just about everyone in capitalistic nations. Now that I have read the book, intrinsic values have been obliterated, while extrinsic importance is at an all time high. Materialism directly leads people to focus more on external rewards, while “undermining intrinsic motivation” (Kasser 2002:77). Intrinsic motivation is what we do because it is enjoyable, involves us, and challenges us.

Intrinsic rewards and self-awareness decrease because we put value upon external things such as random stuff we do not actually need for survival. People may find themselves doing activities that do not actually satisfy their needs. It is all a waste of time to some extent. Also, it works vice-versa. Internal rewards motivate human beings. Giving someone money for doing something would increase this motivation, but could lead this person to care more about the external reward then what they were doing in the first place. Consequently, this leads to a lack of enjoyment and involvement in less stimulating activities.

Rewards such as money decrease our internal motivation. Leading my life is security through money and relationships. I want to live a comfortable, financially stable life. Now that I read this book, I now know to not put as much emphasis on money for my life’s happiness. In American democracy today, our psychological health could be better. Research shows that students who value materialism value external rewards over internal rewards for their school work. I completely agree. I got A’s in high school because if I did, my parents gave me more privileges.

In addition to this, American culture dictates we work hard as Americans In order to afford our high class lifestyle that our culture depicts as achievement and happiness. Americans overwork themselves entirely. “The price and debt is stress, which is fundamentally opposed to the freedom and autonomy characteristics of intrinsic motivation and flow” (Kasser 2002: 82). Ironic, considering we put some much value on our freedom in this country. Apparently, we value our cars and cash more. In Tim Kasser’s The High Price of Materialism, it is very apparent that valuing materialism and consumerism over your internal values has its trade offs.

Materialism distracts us from our true well-being and “maintains deep-rooted feelings of insecurity, [that] leads us to run on never-ending treadmills trying to prove our competence, and …interfere[s] with our relationships” (Kasser 2002: 73). Plainly said, Tim Kasser brilliantly explains the negative correlation between psychological problems and putting value upon wealth accumulation and consumeristic goals. Through stuff we do not find success, we only find distress. This is the high price we pay to live the life of consumerism.


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