Monday, January 31, 2011

The Misdefinition of Materialism

     I have a confession to make. I am one of those people. The ones with dream boards, dream journals, pictures all over my fridge of my future lifestyle and inspirational quotes on post-it-notes just about everywhere in my home. I intentionally seek out things that I desire, that I cannot currently afford, to motivate myself. And I have to say that it never ceases to amaze me just how much opposition I encounter for simply dreaming of a better life for myself and my family. When I talk to people about dreaming I tend to get a lot of the same responses over and over again but the most disturbing argument against having such aspirations is the notion that it is inherently materialistic. I believe this response to be a defense mechanism of sorts, and a product of our countries unhealthy understanding of success and economics.

     First, let me just say that desiring material things is natural and all human beings do to some extent, though some do more than others. Second, desiring material success and being materialistic are not mutually exclusive. Materialism is defined as "preoccupation with or emphasis on material objects, comforts, and considerations, with a disinterest in or rejection of spiritual, intellectual, or cultural values". Therefore it is entirely possible to chase after material success without being materialistic, as long as the person doing the chasing is a) doing it for the right reasons (to provide for their family, etc) and b) not at the expense of their values. The problem is that it is all too common in today's world for people to assign a higher value to material success than they do to their personal character and they go about trying to obtain it in unethical ways, making it their priority above all else and causing much destruction along the way. 

Image c/o SweetOnVeg
    It's a sad state of affairs we find ourselves in when it's completely normal to go out and buy things we don't need (and often times don't even want) with money we don't have to impress people we don't like, but it's considered materialistic to set a goal for a dream car (or house, or any other thing) and save and stretch and grow as people in order to obtain it. Maybe it's because the later requires us to think more about the material thing itself, and do so for an extended period of time and the former only requires that we sign up for a credit card and allow the mainstream culture to dictate for us what is and what is not a necessity. When we buy things on whim, or don't deny ourselves for a time until we earn them then we do think less about our "things", that's true; but just because we may value our things less this way doesn't mean we value our intangible blessings such as faith and family any more. I would prefer for the material things I do possess to hold a greater meaning to me than their monetary cost, because of what it took me to acquire them. 

     As stated in one of my favorite books on the subject of success and leadership Launching a Leadership Revolution there are three levels of motivation for all people. 1) Material Success 2) Recognition and Respect 3) Purpose or Legacy. Of course a person's purpose in life, their passion, and the legacy they leave are far more important things to strive for than material success, but often times until one obtains at least a small measure of material success they do not have the freedom to chase those higher goals with their full drive; they are generally caught in a survival cycle. As Orrin Woodward and Chris Brady point out in the chapter on this subject (Foundational Qualities) "With material success in the hands of those who care, significant differences can be made." There will always be those that take goal setting in the material success category too far and wind up allowing themselves to be lured in by the stingy type of money love they portray in movies and on TV, but more often material goals are tools to great personal growth. I believe that those desires were put inside of each person for a reason and just as good people do good things with money while bad people do bad things with it, so too do good people use material desires to gain leverage on themselves to grow into the person they were meant to be. That is, if those good people don't get suckered into believing the myth that aspirations equal materialism. Sure if people were 100% altruistic they wouldn't need material motivation to become who they were intended to be... but not a single person on this planet is. That being the case it is far better to use those dreams to create positive than to deny yourself on principle to the point of martyrdom (which is a self-focus presenting itself in the opposite direction).

Photo c/o merulu5
     If the true definition of materialism is someone who puts material things ahead of more important matters, how then did we as a society get so confused? When did we start labeling entrepreneurs with big dreams and correct priorities as materialists and yet those people who would rather spend money on cable television and the newest iPhone every time their plans expire are the altruists because they don't spend thought time on what they desire. Instead they buy small luxuries the moment the impulse arises, leaving themselves no space left to dream of bigger successes in those previously mentioned categories. 

     Instant gratification has replaced the American Dream. It's easier for the individual and seems more rewarding in the short term because with instant gratification comes pleasure, however fleeting it may be. This mindset is reinforced at every opportunity by the media because that's how they make their money. TV executives, advertisers, credit card companies, banks, loan agencies and mortgage brokers all make money by keeping people in their debt. You will never see a furniture store advertising "save up this next year and come buy your new leather couch from us when you have the cash in hand". Of course not. The truth that most people have been blinded to is: bad is not the enemy of great, good is. We've sacrificed the happiness we gain from the process of earning material success (notice the happiness comes from the process of earning not from the things we earn) in order to get the pleasure that comes from small luxuries along the way... things we've been told we need like a phone per person instead of per household, central air, microwaves, a TV for every room, and cable programing to go with them (I'm pretty sure it's called programing for a reason; it programs the viewer), etc. These things are usually good (though I won't vouch for the cable) but in almost all cases there is something great just around the corner if we pass up distracting conveniences and entertainments in favor of stretching ourselves enough to get that next great thing in our path. I wonder how much farther along we all would be if we lived by this principle. I wonder how much farther along I would be if I were more consistent in practicing it myself. 

'People often overestimate what they can reasonably achieve in a year. But they vastly underestimate what they can achieve in 5 years."Steve Pavlina


  1. yes really trying to cut down on excessive stuff too! Just gave away five boxes of books that I'm not sure where read that much and then the kids want to buy more books from school, vicious cycle...

  2. It is hard sometimes when you see something cool but its too expensive and you don't "need" it. I try to stay within my means and sometimes less can mean so much more.

  3. I understand what you mean Shelly, and I agree it is far better to live within your means than to buy things you want but don't really need, especially if you have to put them on credit to do so. But I do think that there is a reason that it's hard on us when we desire something that we can't afford... because often times it's a challenge to ourselves to expand our means.

    Obviously we don't need to do this with every little fleeting desire that pops up or we would wind up on a never-ending hunt for stuff. But I think that it's good to take a moment now and then to evaluate 1) just how much we want a certain material "thing" be it a new dress or a new house and what it would mean to us if we found a way to make it a reality and 2) whether there are any areas we feel we need grow in that we could use a little added motivation for. If in answering those questions we discover that the "thing" is motivating enough/will add enough value to our lives and the personal growth goal we have is important enough to us, then it's likely a good time to use those circumstances to expand our means (monetarily or otherwise).

    Over time rewarding ourselves (proportionately) for "good behavior" with material things will reinforce positive habits and the type of creative thinking necessary to improve our lives (and the lives of others) exponentially!

    The human mind is far more powerful than we tend to give it credit for. If we decide we are going to achieve something and truly believe it our subconscious will go about the work of figuring out how to make it happen.

  4. I feel giving credit to yourself in terms of a material thing is bad. I mean its one thing to maybe reward yourself with a manicure but another to buy a top you really don't need. The pure satisfaction of the accomplishment should be enough for you to continue to do something that is right.

  5. I think giving credit to yourself in material things is good, it just isn't great. It isn't wrong or bad to want or have nice things, so long as those things don't have us. And the other motivations outlined by the LLR book are much more important.

    We ought to use our privileges for our purpose rather than our pleasure. When we do that, it will include using material things toward our purpose as well.

    I like the definition of "materialism" that says:

    "A materialistic person is someone that has more than you."

    When you look into it, truth is found. Many people with Mercedes think people with Rolls Royce are materialistic. Many people with Toyota or Ford think people with Mercedes are materialistic. Many people with $1000 or less used beater cars think people with new cars are materialistic. Many people with one family car think people with two family cars are materialistic. And many that choose to ride a bike or take public transportation feel that anyone who owns a car is materialistic.

    The bottom line is that most of us have material things. Most of us have bought them with someone else's money and a promise to pay it back.

    The average "poor" welfare recipient has more "things" and a better lifestyle than the average upper-middle class in 1950, so it is no secret that we all have plenty of material things we don't need. Break it down to brass and tacs and we don't really need our clothing, plenty of people around the world survive without more than a cloth.

    There you have it, if you are dressed, you are materialistic!

    (Also, all hipsters think everyone but them is materialistic. While they enjoy their latte...) ;^) Just kidding hipsters! Love you too!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...