When I was entering teenagehood, I found myself coveting two packages of fake nails that I thought would make me prettier and cooler. I couldn’t stop thinking about how good they would look on my tiny hands. Already at the supermarket, I began having second thoughts and sat on a bench, pondering if I should spend my money on something so irrelevant. Next thing I knew, an old man sat beside me with a lot of bags full of trash. He looked like he hadn’t taken a bath in months, but he seemed happy anyhow.
When he started cutting a Burger King soda container with his rusty scissors, I said, a little bit condescending, “Why are you cutting trash?” He smiled and replied, “Just wait for it, and you’ll see it’s not really trash.” A few seconds later, he handed me two beautiful swans. “Do more!” I exclaimed, completely amazed by his work. He made bears and flowers, all with the rubbish he had collected. When my mom came to pick me up, he gave me all of his creations and said, “Go on, take them. They are for you.”
Materialism is one of those obnoxious words that we hear a lot nowadays. Studies best define it as an insatiable desire to own things and the belief that when those desires are fulfilled we’ll achieve happiness. In other words, materialism suggests success: the more you own, the better your life will be. It sounds awful, but we all do it to some extent, even if we don’t go overboard.
We tend to associate buying things with positive emotions. Our brains think that acquiring new stuff will make us happy, but we’re not entirely sure why our brains work this way. However, it’s probably no surprise to most of us that study after study shows that buying stuff doesn’t make us happy. More importantly, we’re actually unhappy when we put too much value on material objects.
Materialism is tied to shopping pretty closely. From misunderstanding numbers to believing deals are better than they are, you can fight against the ways stores manipulate you pretty easily. If you get a better understanding of why you feel the necessity to upgrade your gadgets all the time, you can get a good idea of what’s going on inside your brain when you want to buy things you probably don’t need. These tricks don’t “beat” materialism, but they can at least keep you mindful of how it’s affecting you.
Think of an item you wanted so badly that you couldn’t stop thinking about anything else. When you eventually got it, you sat and admired it the first few times you interacted with it. As time went by, that meant less and less to you. Now think of your last amazing vacation. Chances are, that vacation makes you feel warm and happy when that material item makes you feel nothing at all. The reason is that we tend to value experiences over objects, even if we don’t think we do.
See, in that moment, I no longer cared about the fake nails I thought I couldn’t live without. I had gotten something much better, something that no one else would have and it didn’t have a price. Life couldn’t have been more wonderful for me in that moment.
As I walked to the exit, I glanced over my shoulder and stopped in my tracks. I tugged at my mom’s hand. “Mom, would it be okay if I gave him my money?” I asked. She smiled down to me. “You can do whatever you want with it.” I didn’t need to think twice before running back to him. Doing as I asked, he opened up his hand and I laid the money before taking his hand and closing it in a fist. “Go on, take it. It’s for you.” He cried and hugged me like my grandpa would embrace me.
This experience, even as I recall it ten years later, makes me feel fuzzy inside because it was an amazing moment for me. It taught me something that I’ll never forget: people is what matters. Experiences are important. Things, they don’t mean a thing.
Granted—none of this means that you have to get rid of all your stuff or stop giving gifts. It’s just an explanation of why we’re so prone to buying things, even when we don’t actually need them. Sometimes we just need to buy stuff and there’s nothing wrong with that. The difference between need and want is that we rarely expect the things we need to make us happy.
We all make the mistake of believing that the more money and things we have, the happier we’ll be. We’re all prone to comparing what we own to what our friends and family have, and then worrying about how it might reflect on us as people. Unfortunately, that’s just a recipe for anxiety, depression, and unhappiness. There’s no real trick to preventing yourself from getting caught up in these materialistic values, but it’s always good to keep these ideas in the back of your mind when you’re out shopping.3