We find ourselves, yet again, in the middle of the “holiday season” where the emphasis has drifted away from families and is now on cheap deals, plasma televisions, and the amassing of various piles of stuff. Against the cultural push of this frenzied time, I wanted to take some time to reflect upon alternatives to materialism and challenge the underlying values that materialism promotes.
What is materialism? Materialism, in the simplest terms, is an obsession with “stuff,” particularly, the acquisition of stuff as a way to promote and maintain self-image. This “stuff” includes consumer goods, like name brand watches, plasma televisions, vehicles, the latest fashionable clothing, even down to smaller things, like purchasing that new pair of shoes you just have to have but don’t need. I’d also argue that it extends to things like lawn care products, where maintaining an image of an immaculate green lawn is the goal, or the purchase of expensive Yoga pants for going to the Yoga studio (which can also be an image thing). Materialism dominates our consumer culture, where the products we purchase, the way we look, the things we consume, and the things we want to have define our reality and sense of selves. In the story of stuff, which I linked above, Annie Lennox argue that less than 1% of the stuff that is purchased each year is still in circulation a year later–most of it gets thrown away so that new stuff can be purchased. The point of all of this stuff isn’t use, its about the hunt, the deal, the purchase–and the resulting image that the stuff can convey. There’s been a lot of talk about the environmental impacts of consumerism and materialism (and I’ve certainly talked about this on the blog). But some of the new research also suggests the detrimental impacts on people.
What does materialism cause for humans and their communities? Now, I’m an educational researcher, and we don’t use the term “cause” lightly (most research can demonstrate relationships, or correlations, between two things, but its much more difficult to prove any kind of causal link between such relationships). The most recent research into materialism, however, is using experimental design and longitudinal research to demonstrate that materialism not only correlates, but in some cases, causes detrimental effects on people’s well-being, where the well being of highly materialistic students was directly linked to how materialistic they were (Kasser et. al, 2013).
Bauer et. al. (2012) found that high materialism heightened negative emotions, increased competitiveness, increased selfishness, and reduced social involvement. The Bauer study is particularly important because it didn’t just examine highly materialistic people, but found that even for people with lower levels of materialism, when they were exposed to a materialistic environment, they became more materialistic and showed negative effects. The ramifications of the Bauer study should be taken seriously–even for people who aren’t materialistic by nature, materialistic cues (such as the hundreds of ads that people in most industrialized nations are exposed to every day, or the near 20 minutes of ads for every hour of television watched) trigger materialistic behavior (and its detrimental effects).
Shifting away from Materialism at the Holidays. While materialism is always a problem in our culture, it becomes exacerbated around the holiday time, when the frenzy of buying gifts is in full swing. I remember a time when I was dating a person whose family was pretty well off. I was overwhelmed at Christmas those few years–they literally filled a whole room with presents, at least a 10′ x 15′ area, and I left with garbage bags full of new items, many of which I had no desire for and never used. His mother expressed her joy at simply shopping for days on end to find the perfect things for everyone on her list–it was like a hunt to her. My own extended family, who is generally pretty down-to-earth and not nearly as well off, didn’t do gift giving when I was growing up for the most part. But eventually, things changed, and even we got a bit out of control with gift purchasing (especially with my dearest mom and her desire to fill up stockings with dollar store purchases!) We were all buying gifts for everyone, and it was hard to figure out what to buy and who would want what, and hard not to spend a good deal of money. A lot of waste and frustration went into the whole thing, and we ended up getting things that we didn’t really want or need. About five years ago, this eventually lead us to re-evaluating the holiday season, its values, and its purpose.
We decided to do a simple Secret Santa gift exchange. Each person created a list of things that they would really like to have (and often needed, like new socks or warm mittens) and one person who was in charge of the Secret Santa gave that list to one other person who was also participating. The names were kept secret, and the fun began. When you got your list, you only worked on gifts for that one person, and you couldn’t spend more than $50 total. The emphasis was strongly on handmade, re-purposed, or otherwise personalized gifts, and gifts were to be meaningful things that people needed. We also emphasized alternative wrapping (newspapers, paper bags, cloth), which has proven to be much more sustainable than one-use papers.
This Secret Santa process transformed the holiday season–we took something that was firmly entrenched in “materialist” mode of thinking, with its frenzied black Fridays and its over-consumptive habits–and transformed it something meaningful, creative, and more personalized. While this process certainly made the gifts that one received at the holidays much better and eliminated excess, it also created a sense of joy that I think we as a family had lost in the frenzy. We truly enjoyed making things and sharing them with others, waiting to see with delight how the gifts would be received. This year, I’m in the process of creating a set of gifts for one of my family members. Because I’m working just on one person’s gifts, I can invest the time and care to make his gifts meaningful and extra special.
Other ideas for gift giving at the holidays include the “handmade only” year, where each person has to make gifts (and gifts don’t have to be physical things–back rubs, poems, songs, and the like can also be made). While some families will feel that they don’t have the talents for this, I would suggest that the process can help rediscover lost creativity and bring back our older human traditions of making useful things.
While holiday gift giving represents only a small portion of what can be done to make the shift away from materialism, I think its a great way to start recognizing that we can live with alternative value systems and create sacred, creative spaces within this otherwise materialistic world.
Benefits of Shifting Away from Materialism more Broadly
I do want to briefly speak about the joys one experiences in making the conscious shift away from materialistic approaches to life in a broader sense. As I’ve described in various ways on this blog, I’ve done much in my own life to shift away from a consumer lifestyle, and I have felt the tangible benefits of doing so! It has made me alive, aware, awake and most of all, reverent and thankful. If everything can just be purchased easily, it has no real meaning. When you start living simply and with less, the things you have take on much more meaning because they are not just bought, but found, made, adapted. You aren’t overwhelmed or overloaded with useless stuff, so your life becomes decluttered. You have a more sacred relationship with the food you grow, especially when eating it from the wooden spoon that was a gift from a friend. You appreciate a fresh strawberry, because you choose to eat them only in season from your yard or from a farmer’s market (and they taste way better when fresh picked). You appreciate the work of artists and handmade gifts become more valuable than all the plasma TVs in the world (which you aren’t watching anyways). You appreciate the warm woolen mittens that were handcrafted out of old sweaters. You begin to seek out those joys that cannot be bought and that don’t have mass market appeal, realizing that those are the best things in life, the things worth having, aren’t things that can be purchased in any store. And that is a very sacred thing.