Waylaid Dialectic

December 11, 2013

Materialism, Happiness and Development

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 8:16 am
Tags: ,

George Monbiot has a fascinating column in the Guardian in which he links to research suggesting materialism as a cause of loneliness and unhappiness. Shopping for shopping’s sake, or in search of status, tends to make people miserable.

It is a great column but Monbiot gets it wrong at the end:

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.

As best we can tell (also here; and see here for some debate) as countries as a whole become more wealthy, they become happier. This is most strongly felt at low levels of wealth and the effect weakens in wealthier countries, yet the effect still seems to be present even among wealthier countries.

When the unit of analysis becomes people not countries, within wealthy countries the best available evidence suggests that, up to a point (and this point is quite high) more money makes you happier, beyond the point it does not. Technically this is known as satiation, and while satiation seems to exist for self-assessed happiness, it does not seem to be present in other self-assessment based quality of life measures. Using these, more money continues to be associated with higher life assessments as far up as the data go — although diminishing returns exist, it takes more money to bring the same amount of quality of life improvement when you already have a lot of money.

Money, however, is not materialism — you could have a wealthy society without being materialistic. In it we’d be wealthy thanks to technology, good institutions, and high levels of human capital, but we’d be spending our money on leisure, and our time with family and friends, and in the outdoors or in libraries, not in shops. And, for what it’s worth, this is what I think the end goal of development out to be. Prosperous, peaceful countries which afford their citizens health, education and free time. As well as freedom from advertising driven myths about needing to own more. Countries where people are wealthy and where people still keep shopping, but where wealth and markets are a means to an ends — the good life.



  1. ” dreadful mistake we are making”

    what I hate about these arguments is that “we” – how many of us really think that having more stuff makes us happier? And set in the context of all the other things in our lives that we care about, how important is this materialist drive, where it exists? Sure plenty of people want more things – I can think of a few things I’d like to buy if I had more money – but I do not imagine that’s going to make me happier in any significant way. Some things money can buy me – like a house in a nicer neighbourhood closer to where I work – I believe would make a material difference to my happiness, but I don’t think that belief is a mistake (I guess you could say this differs from being materialistic)

    it’s easy to wax eloquent about how we are all deluded consumerist drones but I think the reality is that few of us resemble that picture. In my experience people making these arguments never think it applies to them – they realise purchasing baubles doesn’t make them happier – but always to some imagined other. We see advertisers trying to convince us buying their stuff is a great idea, and we see people buying stuff, but that doesn’t mean people think buying stuff leads to happiness.

    We all know there are still plenty of people in this country who struggle to pay fuel bills etc. and for whom wanting an absolute increase in the material standard of living is not a mistaken desire. For the rest of us, mostly we care about “perpetual growth” because interruptions to growth entail recessions, job losses and all that, which there are also perfectly sensible reasons to wish to avoid.

    Comment by Luis Enrique — December 11, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

  2. Thanks Luis,

    You wrote:
    “We all know there are still plenty of people in this country who struggle to pay fuel bills etc. and for whom wanting an absolute increase in the material standard of living is not a mistaken desire.”

    I couldn’t agree more.


    Comment by terence — December 12, 2013 @ 6:46 am

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