Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
How to get materialism under control in your life
It's insidious and destructive, but there are some things you can do to develop a healthier relationship with material things.
The Oxford Dictionary defines materialism as "a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values." Most people realize it's a losing proposition. Still, with 24/7 appeals to buy, buy, buy, it's easy to become preoccupied with the pursuit of material possessions without even realizing it.
But it's never enough, and we may fall into thinking less of ourselves based on how we measure up to those with more money and stuff.
Obviously, ignoring one's material needs altogether in a money-based society doesn't work: Just try not having to be materialist all the time when you're broke. This leaves materialism as only a problem for those with fundamentally sufficient economic resources. So, lucky you. Nonetheless, there's a healthy balance that should be struck. And there are ways to break out of a destructive materialistic mindset.
De-programming your mind
Credit: Joshue Earle/Unsplash
1. Get mindful about advertising
Face it: You're surrounded. On TV, in apps, on web pages, on the streets, it's everywhere. People want you to buy their products. You may be able to minimize the impact of this 360-degree brainwashing by taking conscious note of your exposure to it. Stillman suggests that you can gain a better appreciation of its insidious effect—and build up resistance—by listing every ad to which you're exposed for four days. Spoiler alert: It's going to be a lot of writing and a jaw-dropper.
2. Inventory your actual values
Take a time-out to thoughtfully write out all the things you really consider important, such as loved ones, feeling healthy, and so on. Don't be disappointed if the list seems trite. These things are often cited as having value because they really do. Want to be happier? Consider the acquisition of these things your new goal.
"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." — George Burns
Take a moment to explore whether your behavior lines up with these things, and consider how it might.
3. Track your spending
No, we're not talking about budgeting yourself so much as having a look at where your money is going. Is it being spent on helping you attain your real goals? Or are you buying things to impress others or keep up with what others around you may have so you don't feel like a loser?
"Every time I feel lame, I'm looking up." — Sheryl Crow
This is how you’re being manipulated
Credit: fran_kie/Adobe Stock
Leo Babauta digs down a bit deeper into the whole brainwashing thing.
He recommends stepping away from activities in which many of us engage by default and which keep us up to our eyeballs in ads. He warns about over-consumption of TV, the news, internet blogs, magazines as opposed to books, frequent trips to the mall or superstores, and keeping watch on the buying impulses they trigger.
Babauta suggests a 30-day test you can use to identify the things you might not really need. Ask yourself, "If I had to wait 30 days to buy this, would I still want it?" He also proposes the consideration of buying things used — is it the "shiny new" aspect you covet, or the thing itself?
Finally, there's a Zen beauty in the simpler, de-cluttered home you can get by getting rid of possessions that don't give you joy, as Marie Kondo says. Things you really don't care about serve as examples that can stay your hand when you're considering buying more, well, junk in the cosmic scheme of things.
Refocus your principles
Credit: Faye Cornish/Unsplash
- You aren't the things1 you own — Your value is in who you are and what you do, not what stuff you've amassed.
- Relationships are about doing, not having — Being in a relationship is a state of being. You haven't acquired, nor do you own, the other person.
- Create a system of goals and challenges — Since materialism steps in when there's a void to fill, find yourself some worthwhile goals to occupy that empty space.
- Serve — Want to feel good about yourself? There's no better way than doing something good for someone else. It's the best selfish secret there is.
- Trash it — We've mentioned the value in decluttering above. Clear away crap you don't care about.
- See wealth as a challenge not a result — As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert told CNN in 2006, research indicates, "By and large, money buys happiness only for those who lack the basic needs. Once you pass an income of $50,000, more money doesn't buy much more happiness." (The figure's likely a bit higher in 2021.)
- Experience over objects — These's nothing more valuable than the precious time that keeps whizzing by. Are you spending this rarest of possessions well?
- Build intangible assets — It makes a lot more sense to invest in becoming a smarter, better person than focusing on material goods.
- Use money to free, not chain, yourself — Once you've got enough to meet your true needs, you're done. Becoming obsessed with getting more and more money is nothing more than a trap that keeps you from more valuable pursuits.
- Go basic — If you live a bit less extravagantly, you'll buy yourself slack to mentally relax. Simpler can be easier, you know.
- Avoid the status game — Cultivate a personal community of people from a variety of economic brackets so you're not so tempted to compare.
- Judge yourself by your ethics and your understanding — If you need to judge yourself at all, consider the kind of person you are, and how well you're achieving your ethical goals. It's not about what the world thinks of you: It's what you know about yourself.
- Let go — Yes, you live in a material world, but you also live in a spiritual one, regardless of whether or not you're the religious type. Guess which one makes you happier.
- You can't take it with you — When you're tossing out stuff, make sure to lose the "He who has the most stuff when he dies wins" t-shirt. It's hard to imagine that in your last moments you'll be thinking about that flatscreen and not the experiences you've had and the people you've loved and who've made you feel loved.
Do it for your mental health
Scientific American reports on the largest study ever on the impact or rampant materialism on individuals. It found that shifting one's focus away from money and things and toward intrinsic goals leads to greater contentment. One of its authors, psychology professor Tim Kasser, explains, "Intrinsic goals tend to be ones that promote greater well-being and act as a kind of 'antidote' to materialistic values."
If you're reading this, you're probably already thinking about materialism in your life. You're not alone in being concerned, and you may be able to find other people you know with whom you can work make a change in your lives. "It is important to find some like-minded folks who want to join you in shifting away from materialism," says Kasser. "They are out there, I promise."
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."