Motivation and emotion/Book/2021/Materialism and psychological well-being

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Materialism and psychological well-being:
What are the effects of materialism on psychological well-being?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Majority of the individuals today aspire to be content. Almost everyone spends a significant amount of time, energy, and money in search of happiness and pleasure. Most humans in today's era are also surrounded and shaped by materialistic objects. Moreover, materialism has evolved to become a natural part of being human. Nowadays, consumers find it important to attach themselves to worldly possessions that define and boost their sense of self. For them, these materialistic possessions provide a significant amount of satisfaction and dissatisfaction in life either directly or indirectly. This chapter will tap into that of new materialism converging to an economic context in terms of its relation to money, consumption, and material satisfaction.

Although individuals strive for goal attainment through the process of achieving certain needs whether it be in terms of money, praise, respect, and gratitude; materialistic tendencies develop as an adaptive response to events that make people feel nervous, anxious, and insecure. Individuals strive to achieve optimum functioning whilst accumulating materialistic goods. However, negative connotations arise from the fact that one's value system and social status is not satisfactory enough in determining their affluence within society. Moreover, the growing popularity of minimalism is now overriding those facets of materialism as being influential in developing one's psychological well-being. Thus, the study of materialism is essential because of the increasing compression of consumer culture and people's increasing propensity towards material items for happiness and life satisfaction.

Focus questions:
  • What are the implications of materialism?
  • What needs motivate materialistic behaviour?
  • What role does materialism play in psychological well-being?
  • How does one overcome materialistic challenges to enhance well-being?

What is materialism?[edit | edit source]

The inclination to see worldly belongings as important sources of contentment in life is known as materialism. It is, however, not the means to an end, as materialistic possessions tend to acquire a short shelf life. Although exhibiting material things to show off one’s distinctiveness and individuality offers increased gratification, materialism diminishes happiness and reduces life satisfaction in the long run. It is also linked to upholding one's identity and constructing oneself through material possessions. Moreover, its severity is defined by how much people try to use material objects to edifice their personalities and maintain their identities through the process of consumption (Manchanda, 2019).

Figure 1. Scale depicting relationship (imbalance) between materialism and human satisfaction.

Materialism is not always an individually oriented phenomenon. Instead, it is linked to improving the material well-being and consumption of a single individual in some cultures, or several individuals (friends and family) in others. Even if materialism is affected by the desire for economic independence, it has been discovered that high degrees of materialism can co-occur with generosity in societies (Guliz & Bilkent, 1990).

Instrumental and terminal materialism[edit | edit source]

With regard to the classification of materialism, two types of materialism were introduced and distinguished from. These were that of instrumental and terminal materialism. According to instrumental materialism, material objects are used as symbols to develop interpersonal relationships, such as memories, or to engage in creative self-actualising activities, such as art or science. Terminal materialism, on the other hand, arises when the desire for additional goods runs amok, and the habit of consumption becomes a chief aim. (Csikszentmihalyi & Halton, 1981). Thus, Materialism is an intensified phase of consumption that incorporates intrinsic and extrinsic aims.

Benefits[edit | edit source]

Materialism may positively influence a consumer's level of satisfaction with their standard of living, as well as the extent to which that level of satisfaction affects overall sentiments of life satisfaction (Richins, 1987). Materialists associate happiness with purchases of material goods as they may provide a functional solution to solving problems. Subsequently, Instrumental materialism is regarded as a positive manifestation of a creative engagement with the material world that benefits well-being.

Drawbacks[edit | edit source]

Happiness and psychological health are inversely correlated with materialistic goals and ambitions since investing discretionary resources to life experiences makes people better-off than giving discretionary resources to material items. On the contrary, experiential purchases make people happier than material purchases because they are open to constructive reinterpretations, more resistant to pessimistic comparisons, and foster effective social interactions (Van Boven, 2005). Nevertheless, terminal materialism is negatively associated with materialism in terms of being destructive to both the individual and the natural environment.

What is psychological well-being?[edit | edit source]

Well-being is not just the absence of disease or illness. It is a complex combination of a person's physical, mental, emotional, and social health. Individuals who acquire a high level of well-being are likely to improve their psychological functioning as a result of generating a sense of comfort happiness and security. Psychological well-being encompasses 6 distinct dimensions of wellness: autonomy; environmental mastery; personal growth; positive relations with others; purpose in life; and self-acceptance. Life satisfaction is a key indicator of well-being wherein integrated regulation is associated with maximum positive outcomes such as pro social development and psychological well-being (Ryff & Keyes, 1995).

The presence of positive emotionality, having a sense of purpose, being satisfied with one’s life constitute psychological well-being. Hence, once the psychological needs of an individual are satisfied, the happier one becomes, further engaging in relationships that are both supportive and need-thwarting.  

Theoretical framework: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a five-stage model that can be divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels are referred to as deficiency needs, and the top level is known as growth or being needs. Deficiency needs emerge due to deprivation, and they are said to motivate people when they are denied (McLeod, 2018). Furthermore, the longer such needs go unmet, the stronger the drive to meet them becomes.

Figure 2. Maslow's basic, psychological and self-fulfilment hierarchy of needs.

All human striving is classified as an attempt to meet one of five needs. The first need is physiological, such as air, water, and sufficient nutrients to live. The second is safety, such as feelings of security from assault and chaos. The third is belongingness and love, including friends and family. The fourth is esteem, where a person is regarded as a wise, confident decision-maker. Finally, the fifth need is self-actualisation, where individuals make maximum use their individual gifts and interests, becoming the most that one can be (Hagerty, 1999).

  • Physiological: Having the resources to buy food and water.
  • Safety: Having the ability to acquire quality equipment to ensure safety procedures are in place.
  • Belongingness and Love: The ability to engage in activities that strengthen relationships and make one feel more connected to others. This includes purchasing important goods for loved ones and eating various cuisines.
  • Esteem: Possessing materialistic objects can bring a sense of self-confidence, reputation, status, and prestige in the way one affords expensive goods, such as the type of car one drives. This precedes real self-esteem and dignity.
  • Self-actualisation: Realising one’s personal potential, self-fulfilment and making maximum use of one’s individual talents- for example focusing on one’s intrinsic values so as to give back to the community by providing certain resources.

In self-actualisation, a person comes to find meaning in life that is important to them. This occurs when a person experiences the world totally for what it is, whilst feeling euphoric and joyous (McLeod, 2018). Hence, this continuous process does not require the need for materialistic possessions as a way achieve certain feelings of fulfilment and satisfaction. Subsequently, pleasure and well-being are dependent in part on the satisfying of needs since a strong materialistic value orientation works against happiness and well-being.

Basic need satisfaction is associated with psychological health. Maslow believed that in most individuals there is an active desire to improve their health, progress, and realise their fullest potential. He also characterised humans as perpetually ‘wanting creatures’, always possessing some type of unfulfilled need (Oleson, 2004). Maslow's hierarchy of needs can be understood in a gentrified light as focusing on not only psychological motivation to meet these wants, but also having the means, resources, and ability to do so. These desires can lead to the hoarding of material goods amongst individuals, further resulting in neurotic behaviour outcomes. If hoarding material goods represents compensatory neurotic behaviour, then materialism would also be negatively correlated with need fulfilment (Saunders et al., 2015). Therefore, a psychological barrier to limiting materialistic pursuits is that people seem to have a luxurious definition of needs (Richins, 1995).

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1 Maslow's most basic needs are physiological and safety needs:


2 Attaining self-actualisation is when one realises their fullest potential:


What is the relationship between materialism and psychological well-being?[edit | edit source]

The relationship between materialism and psychological well-being is a complex and enigmatic one. Although materialism is viewed as the value a consumer places on the acquisition and possession of material objects, high levels of material values are negatively associated with subjective well-being including satisfaction with family, friends, fun, income, and life. Nevertheless, the conviction that one's relationship with objects can enhance their well-being is a defining characteristic of materialistic individuals.

The values embedded within an individual plays an integral role in demonstrating how obtaining materialistic goods is linked to psychological well-being. This relates to creating feelings of anguish towards purchasing such objects. It is observed that materialistic motives of acquisitiveness and self-centeredness should conflict with higher self-transcendent values such as religious principles (e.g., spirituality, selflessness). According to value research, when two values fundamentally oppose one another, conflict should occur more frequently and with higher severity. These disputes are likely to cause psychological tension over time, resulting in decreased well-being. A person with a deep religious conviction, for example, may feel guilty about having a self-serving obsession with material items. Nonetheless, the values conflict theory will attempt to realign one’s value priorities of becoming less materialistic to alleviate this discomfort (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002). Hence, the values theory is essential in examining a novel conceptualisation of why materialism is antithetical to wellbeing. When materialism is temporarily activated, it instigates noticeable alterations in an individual's sense of autonomy and negative affect. This study is significant in demonstrating the malleability of materialism as a value system and attitude (Nagpaul & Pang, 2017).

Despite the complexities of the relationships between money, possessions, and psychological well-being, there is an association between materialistic values and a host of problematic outcomes, including more negative and diminished positive affect because of the inherent conflict between material and collective values (Burroughs & Rindfleisch, 2002). The more highly people endorse materialistic values, the more they experience unpleasant emotions, depression, and anxiety that hinder their psychological well-being. There are also reports of physical health (e.g., headaches) being at risk that stem from supporting materialistic standards. Thus, material wealth appears to have a negative correlation with both happiness, overall life, and mental satisfaction.


Materialistic individuals incur substantial costs to pursue their materialistic ambitions. The more materialistic one is, the more credit cards they own, the more finance charges are on those cards, and the more likely they are to have loans of more than $1,000 (Watson, 2003). This relates to them becoming less psychologically healthy since well-being stems from doing, rather than having.

How does materialism influence and affect psychological well-being?[edit | edit source]

People who favour statements such as “some of the most important achievements in life include acquiring material possessions” and “buying things gives me a lot of pleasure” report lower levels of satisfaction with life than people who disagree with such statements (Van Boven & Gilovich, 2003). Moreover, our sense of necessity can be influenced by social comparisons and adaptation. Thus, individuals who support such extrinsic goals are also found to have poorer levels of psychological well-being.

Intrinsic and extrinsic goals[edit | edit source]

Intrinsic and extrinsic goals are key influences that affect psychological well-being. Intrinsic goals are those that seek to satisfy one’s innate psychological needs and aspirations whilst stimulating effort, strategic thinking, and persistence. Striving for extrinsic goals, on the other hand, reflects a materialistic value system that is irrelevant to people’s innate psychological needs. These goals emphasise on the acquisition of financial success, social recognition, and appearance that prevent the advancement of personal growth and well-being (Kasser & Ryan, 2001). Furthermore, materialism affects well-being by depriving people of their essential psychological need for autonomy (Nagpaul & Pang, 2017). When people strive for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, they can create meaning in their lives that fosters well-being. Thus, well-being is about what one is striving for, not about what one actually attains.

The determination, motivation, and struggle to attain desired objects has greater meaning in influencing mental well-being rather than just attaining objects for which the satisfaction lasts for a minimum period. Therefore, pursuing extrinsic goals of becoming high status individuals, may not result in psychological well-being.

Positive effects[edit | edit source]

Presently, not much can be discovered on how obtaining materialistic values positively affects or influences psychological well-being in terms of strengthening growth and purpose in life. Nevertheless, intrinsic values for self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling lead people to engage in experiences that satisfy their psychological needs and hence boost their well-being (Kasser & Ahuvia, 2002). Materialistic objects can occasionally provide a sense of security in the face of prospective misfortunes as earning and possessing such objects can be sources of self-esteem in a community that places a high value on various resources (Diener et al., 1984). Thus, this correlates to that of self-actualisation and psychological well-being attainment.

Negative effects[edit | edit source]

Materialistic individuals appear to be more insecure than the average consumer as they place less value in bonding with family and community compared to their less materialistic counterparts. Materialistic preferences appear to be affiliated with existential insecurity in the form of death anxiety but also insecurity rooted in childhood development (Rindfleisch et al., 2009). As a result, these individuals may face difficulty in forming strong meaningful interpersonal connections that influence psychological well-being. Consequently, materialistic consumers are likely to seek attachments to material objects as a substitute for their faltering social connections, resulting in experiencing low levels of belongingness. Therefore, materialistic individuals are influenced to form strong connections to their brands as a response to coping with existential insecurity due to their interfered deficient social attachments (Rindfleisch et al., 2009).  

Problems experienced by materialistic persons consist of developing lower self-esteem and greater levels of narcissism. Social comparison is another key undesirable indicator wherein individuals compare themselves with others for the purpose of evaluating themselves. Materialists who earn lower incomes acquire less empathy, less intrinsic motivation, and experience more conflictual relationships. Thus, materialistic beliefs may induce lower levels of well-being due to materialistic people overlooking the importance of social relations whilst simultaneously downplaying the large gap between their incomes and material aspirations (Diener & Seligman, 2004).

Individuals primarily concerned with extrinsic values for material success experience decrements in their quality of life. Those who seek to pursue a materialistic lifestyle fail to chase intrinsic, psychological-need satisfaction goals, thus, hindering their ability to enhance those aspects of autonomy, mastery and positive relationships (Kasser & Ahuvia, 2002). This represents the intricate nature of how materialism influences psychological wellbeing in terms of detracting people from meeting their needs.

Minimalism[edit | edit source]

Figure 3. Tiny home lifestyle.

The concept of minimalism has tremendously grown in popularity due to its simplicity in terms of how individuals choose to live with minimal objects and still be satisfied. Additionally, it places a strong emphasis on the comprehension and recognition that everything in the world is transient, fluid, and thus ultimately incomprehensible, in turn, expecting to afford experiences of gratitude and peaceful disengagement (Kan et al., 2009).

Minimalism comprises of four distinctive yet correlated behavioural representations. These include clutter removal, cautious shopping, longevity, and self-sufficiency (Kang et al., 2021). These attributes stir away from that of materialism as it emphasises on the reduction of material possessions and spending more money on experiences. Hence, minimalists refrain from putting unhealthy priority on procuring physical materialistic objects. Minimalists are inclined towards appreciating subtle minimal beauty in life, thereby feeling deep gratitude for existence itself and, recognising the importance of detachment in assuring a degree of pleasure and contentment. Furthermore, the minimalist well-being is functional, promoting optimal performance in interdependent social networks and collectivist social regimes (Kang et al., 2021). Thus, minimalism enhances flourishing whilst alleviating depression.


Alice is a 30-year-old who has been living in a tiny home for 3 years. For Alice, living in a tiny home revealed that the more present in life she was, the more invested she was in living rather than consuming. Moreover, she felt more connected to the things that she had due to possessing minimal items. She did, however, initially portray subconscious feelings regarding the need to constantly upgrade and get more stuff. Nevertheless, she realised overtime that spending the money elsewhere served a greater purpose in achieving tranquillity.

How can psychological well-being be cultivated?[edit | edit source]

It is imperative that one understands the ways in which wellbeing can be developed in the presence or absence of materialistic possessions. A person who can cultivate their own desires as well as that of the community, the law of nature, and is able to reconcile these patterns succeeds in establishing self-actualisation, leading to psychological well-being. Cultivation refers to the process of investing psychic energy so as to become conscious of the goals within oneself, among others, and in the environment whilst channelling one’s attention to realise such aspirations (Csikszentmihalyi & Halton, 1981). Hence, utilising one’s energy in mastering tasks that provide feelings of satisfaction plus motivation is crucial in promoting positive affect and wellness.  

Individuals with an unstable self-esteem may find that adopting highly normative materialistic values is a suitable strategy to gain social acceptability. This perspective implies the presence of "instrumental" materialism, which people utilise as a way to attain short-term goals, such as belonging (Csikszentmihalyi & Halton, 1981). Consuming materialistic items for short-term purposes can boost self-esteem and psychological well-being but might undermine the well-being of low-stability individuals in the long run (Dittmar et al., 2014). It is easy to become caught up in a never-ending cycle of acquisition, but that money could be better spent elsewhere as a way to achieve larger goals in life.

To be a good self entails cultivating one’s self in order to acquire an ever-increasing amount of virtuous, desirable, or pleasurable self-aspects referred to as well-being and happiness (Kang et al., 2021). Developing affirmative, progressive, constructive, and encouraging family and peer relationships can aid in the formation of productive and optimistic interactions. This in turn gives rise to individuals achieving greater more enhanced psychological well-being in the absence of materialistic objects.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Ultimately, possessing materialistic items plummets the satisfaction of life whilst providing a sense of gratification and status only for a limited time period. Although materialism is becoming increasingly valuable as civilisation progresses, the power felt from owning materialistic items fades as it does not fulfil the truest internal motives that aid in feeling content with oneself. Thus, materialism does not aid in the nurturance of growth and well-being. Psychologists now conceptualise motivation as a pluralistic behaviour, whereby needs can operate on multiple levels simultaneously. A person may be motivated by higher growth needs whilst being inspired by lower-level deficiency needs at the same time. Even though material wealth has a fundamental place in the lives of many consumers, the want for more materialistic goods beyond a specific point becomes toxic for the happiness of the purchasers. This results in the lack of ability to develop positive relationships, self-acceptance, purpose in life or environmental mastery. It is this experience of authentic need satisfaction (autonomy, competence, and relatedness) that increases well-being whilst maintaining positive mood vitality and health. Nevertheless, to address issues of generalisability and wider efficacy, more research and future examination in different populations is required that involves ongoing interactions with participants whilst assessing their materialistic levels long after the study has ended.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Burroughs, J. E., & Rindfleisch, A. (2002). Materialism and well-being: A conflicting values perspective. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(3), 348–370.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Halton, E. R. (1981). The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self. Research Gate, 12(4), 1-13. DOI:10.2307/2067526

Diener, E., Horwitz, J., & Emmons, R. A. (1984). Happiness of the very Wealthy. Social Indicators Research, 16, 263-274.

Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1), 1–31.

Dittmar, H., Kasser, T., Rosenblum, K. L., Sameroff, A. J., Deci E. L., Niemiec, C. P., Ryan, R. M., Arnadottir, O., Bond, R., Dungan, N., Hawks, S. (2014). Changes in materialism, changes in psychological well-being: Evidence from three longitudinal studies and an intervention experiment. Motivation and Emotion, 38, 1–22.

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Kasser, T., & Ahuvia, A. (2002). Materialistic values and well-being in business students. European Journal of Social Psychology, 32(1), 137-146.

Kasser, T., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Be careful what you wish for: Optimal functioning and the relative attainment of intrinsic and extrinsic goals. Research Gate.

Kang, J., Martinez, C. M. J., & Johnson, C. (2021). Minimalism as a sustainable lifestyle: Its behavioural representations and contributions to emotional well-being. Science Direct, 27, 802-813.

Kan, C., Karasawa, M., & Kitayama, S. (2009). Minimalist in style: Self, identity, and well-being in Japan. Taylor & Francis Online, 8(2-3), 300-317.

Manchanda, Dr. R. (2019). Materialism – A conceptualization for contemporary research. Indian Journal of Commerce & Management Studies, 10(1), 47-53.

McLeod, S. (2018). Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Simply Psychology, 1–16.

Nagpaul, T., & Pang, J. S. (2017). Materialism lowers well-being: The mediating role of the need for autonomy – correlational and experimental evidence. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 20(1), 11-21.

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Ryff, C. D., & Keyes, C. L. M. (1995). The structure of psychological well-being revisited. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(4), 719–727.

Rindfleisch, A., Burroughs, J. E., & Wong, N (2009). The safety of objects: Materialism, existential insecurity, and brand connection. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(1), 1-16,

Saunders, S., Munro, D., & Bore. B. (2015). Maslow's hierarchy of needs and its relationship with psychological health and materialism. South Pacific Journal of Psychology, 10(2), 15-25.

Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2003). To Do or to Have? That is the Question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(6), 1193-1202.

Van Boven, L. (2005). Experientialism, Materialism, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 132–142.

Watson, J. J. (2003). The relationship of materialism to spending tendencies, saving, and debt. Journal of Economic Psychology, 24(6), 723–739.

External links[edit | edit source]