Mind & Body

Measure Your Materialism With the Material Values Scale

Sometimes, a little retail therapy doesn't hurt. Going on a clothes-shopping spree after a bad breakup or splurging on organizing supplies when life is chaotic can feel good in the moment. But if you've ever really splurged when feeling down, you know that money doesn't actually fix everything. Instead, consumer culture can really make things worse. Increasingly, scientists think materialism could be hurting our well-being. But how can you know how much purchasing is too much?

More Money, More Problems

Scientists are still trying to figure out whether unhappiness fuels materialism or whether materialism fuels unhappiness, but one thing is certain: Those who value things above all else tend to be unhappy. As Knox College psychologist Tim Kasser, Ph.D., told the American Psychological Association, "[M]aterialism is associated with lower levels of well-being, less pro-social interpersonal behavior, more ecologically destructive behavior, and worse academic outcomes." Perhaps more obviously, it's also associated with spending problems and with being in debt, he added.

If that doesn't convince you, recent science has also shown that materialism stems from insecurities that root themselves early in life. People who doubt themselves also tend to buy the most. Once our basic material needs are satisfied, science shows that more money doesn't lead to greater happiness. Extremely rich people even suffer from increased rates of depression.

Why is this? When it comes to meeting psychological needs, material goods are like empty calories. "[M]aterialistic values are associated with living one's life in ways that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs to feel free, competent and connected to other people," says Kasser. "When people do not have their needs well-satisfied, they report lower levels of well-being and happiness, as well as more distress."

If you start to worry your values skew toward the materialistic end of things, not all hope is lost. Some science shows that there's an antidote to consumerism, and it's already inside you. The answer is mindfulness, or a concentrated awareness of the present. Meditation and mindfulness could help you focus on your relationship with objects and the act of purchasing, and help you connect to other people.

Recent research also shows that, in the U.S. at least, materialism might be decreasing all on its own. According to a 2013 American Express survey, only about a quarter of Americans believes wealth determines success.

Measure Your Materialism

If you want to know where you stand in consumer culture, the discovery process is pretty simple. You can take a scientifically validated questionnaire known as the Material Values Scale that can help you suss out your relationship to things. [Editor's note: the website that hosts the scale is currently down, but you can see the list of questions on page 217 of this paper in the meantime.]

When you take the survey, you'll see a series of statements that will ask you to indicate how much you agree or disagree with them — statements like "The things that I own say a lot about how well I'm doing in life" and "Buying things gives me a lot of pleasure." Then, you'll be asked to respond to similar statements about your friends and coworkers.

The results page will divide your score into a few elements for analysis. You'll see where you land when it comes to acquisition centrality, or how important possessions are in your life; acquisition as the pursuit of happiness, or how important you think possessions are to your well-being; and possession-defined success, or how much you judge success by the accumulation of possessions. The higher the number, the more materialistic you are in each category. You'll also see how your scores in each category compare to the average scores in different generations.

This Material Values Scale survey is part of a study conducted by Jesse Graham, Ph.D., Ravi Iyer, Ph.D., and Sena Koleva, Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. Your responses will be kept confidential, and they'll both advance science and advance your understanding of your relationship to material possessions. Once you know your level of materialism — and how strongly science says material goods won't make you happy — you can take steps to disengage and find healthier ways to feel better.

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Hear more from Tim Kasser in his book, "The High Price of Materialism." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk September 13, 2019

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