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.

A group of men with multiple Footlocker bags in London
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  • Materialism is a personal focus on acquiring possessions that can steer your attention and behavior away from things that make you happy.
  • There are several things you can do to tame materialism in your own life.
  • Satisfaction ultimately can't be found in collecting the most stuff possible, but rather in achieving intrinsic values.

    • 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

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      Jessica Stillman, writing for Inc.com, suggests three steps to take to shift your perspective back to sanity as you wend your way through a materialist world.

      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

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      Author Scott H. Young has compiled a list of 14 concepts and activities you should consider as you look to overcome materialism in your life. (Check out the original article for further details.)

      1. You aren't the things1 you own — Your value is in who you are and what you do, not what stuff you've amassed.
      2. 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.
      3. 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.
      4. 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.
      5. Trash it — We've mentioned the value in decluttering above. Clear away crap you don't care about.
      6. 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.)
      7. Experience over objects — These's nothing more valuable than the precious time that keeps whizzing by. Are you spending this rarest of possessions well?
      8. Build intangible assets — It makes a lot more sense to invest in becoming a smarter, better person than focusing on material goods.
      9. 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.
      10. Go basic — If you live a bit less extravagantly, you'll buy yourself slack to mentally relax. Simpler can be easier, you know.
      11. Avoid the status game — Cultivate a personal community of people from a variety of economic brackets so you're not so tempted to compare.
      12. 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.
      13. 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.
      14. 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."

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