A Thematic Summary of the Positive Psychology Meetings: Finding Alternatives to Materialism
The Quality of Life Research Center
Peter F. Drucker School of Management
Claremont, California 2000
by Jeremy P. Hunter
A middle-class person living in a G-7 first-world nation is among the most fortunate in the history of humankind. Never before has so much opportunity, so much freedom, and so much knowledge been available to so many. Longer and healthier lives, easy global travel, a rich and varied diet as well as a panoply of other comforts have been brought on by the boon of material development.
It seems strange then that amidst this unprecedented physical wealth and health there is a growing psychic dissatisfaction questioning the value of all these achievements. Even more disturbing is the fact that the global shadow of poverty looms so large that those first-worlders who voice their dissatisfaction seem pathetically akin to a gaunt and gorgeous super-model complaining that she is fat and ugly. Yet that these complaints should be raised at all along with rising statistics of depression, loneliness and ennui, suggests that material prosperity alone is not the royal road to human happiness. Furthermore, the costs of propagating a hedonistic (as opposed to a tempered and prudent) materialism as a planet-wide ideology may hold irreparable consequences for civilized human life.
Given these circumstances, the Quality of Life Research Center, founded in 1999, decided that its first initiative would be to explore the role of materialism in contemporary life with an aim to develop alternative visions of "the good life." To this end, we convened a series of four meetings consisting of five-to-six persons representing diverse professional backgrounds, including psychology, arts education, architecture, market research, and the social service sector, to discuss issues, form strategies and alliances, and develop possible alternatives.
These meetings did not operate under the assumption that materialism per se is a negative phenomenon, indeed as we will discuss, material objects have aided human survival and greatly enriched human existence. What concerns us is the increasing role that materiality plays in contemporary life, to the point where the modern emphasis on the acquisition of ever-more-novel material objects has eclipsed the traditional strengths and functions of human community and identity. This document represents a thematic summary of the ideas discussed and a platform for further action.
The Rewards of the Material World
It is almost too obvious to point out the vital relationship between human beings and the objects developed to exert control over the physical world. Were it not for the ability to invent sophisticated material objects (as well as the symbolic systems that inform their use), humans would be far from the Earth's dominant species. In fact, it seems increasingly clear that human proficiency with tools is so vast that we have altered the biosphere that sustains us. While the most apparent role of objects is as a manipulator of our physical environment, additional and equally important functions played by objects are the psychic ones used to express, transform, acknowledge, and in some cases, transcend human identity. These functions, discussed by David Mick, Russell Belk, and Rick Robinson, are very old ones and have been used by people to cultivate the structures of self and community that have aided the survival of the species-we consider this relationship to objects in service to other goals to be instrumental materialism. Much of the time this is embodied as instruments of expression. Because of our intensely social nature, one of the primary ways we use objects is to communicate things about ourselves to others, whether it is to express our view of ourselves, reinforce connections to the past and project them into the future, assert or claim a role within the community, acknowledge a relationship with others, or find a larger reality beyond the self.
One of these expressive purposes for objects is to declare and confer identity. Some of the oldest human-hewn objects unearthed by archeologists are thought to be objects of status used by the "alpha-person" of the tribe. By being the holder of the proper things, a person can efficiently signal his status merely at a glance. Many objects carry a meaning that send messages about its bearer. The uniforms of the military service and a McDonald's employee send two very different messages about the abilities and status of their wearers, while the "anti-uniform" of a T-shirt and blue jeans sends another message altogether. Which material objects we choose to adorn ourselves with sends a message of who we are, where we came from, and what we aspire to. Object express identity and status. Today's world faces no shortage of status objects-messages from which to choose, whether it is an understated Swiss "chronograph," or an overstated Sport-Utility Vehicle. Objects in service to status and identity may be one of the oldest practices of the species.
Another role objects play is a temporal one used to maintain connection to the flow of time, whether this means marking the past, acknowledging the present or projecting one's hopes for the future. These could be personal objects like photographs of long-gone loved ones, or culturally-sanctioned objects used by communities to mark specific times of the year. Every community employs these objects, whether they are Easter eggs and Christmas trees for the followers of Christ, cherry blossoms that herald the passage of time for the Japanese or Chinese moon cakes used in annual celebrations. Objects with temporal references play an important part of maintaining a continuity of identity through the chaos of life.
In addition to identity, some objects were used in a transformative capacity because they were thought to confer a specific ability or power. While a wooden cheetah mask was once thought to grant the gift of agility and speed to its wearer, a new pair of Air Jordans, or eating from a box of Wheaties perform an updated form of this function. Perhaps the most commonplace of modern transformative objects is the book, which offer the potential of knowledge or skills, insights into the nature of life, a means around which to organize existence, a window into the experience of the past or a prospective view into the possibilities of the future. .
Objects also perform an explicitly relational function as well. Gift-giving is a common way of acknowledging relationships, cementing bonds, cultivating goodwill. Thus, while objects can hold intra-psychic role of establishing and transforming identity, objects also serve inter-psychic roles as well. Japan has taken the practice of gift-giving and raised it to an art form, whether it is during one of the twice-yearly exchanges of gifts to one's associates, or visiting a friend's home or even acknowledging a continued relationship with a dead ancestor. Object exchange and offering represents a potent means of demonstrating the value of relationships. Larry Giannino discussed this aspect of consumption in his exploration of evaluating consumption practices.
While objects can be used to define identity, transform it and avow one's relationship with others a final role objects can play is transcendence of self. Russell Belk alluded to the universal yearning for transformative experiences through the words of Tennessee William's character Blanche DuBois, who declared "I don't want realism, I want magic". This can be found most often in objects with religious significance, whether it be a cherished icon, a representation of Christ, or any item which helps to connect with a view of reality larger than the self. The objects associated with the appreciation of nature, a mountain climber's gears, a birdwatcher or a snorkeler's equipment, can also serve as devices to elicit awe and transcendence.
Paolo Inghilleri explored the various roles which objects can play and the dual nature inherent in them. Being crafted from materials, like all things, they are subject to physical entropy. However, objects are also endowed with meaning by the intention of the creator and users. The ascription of psychic energy to objects offers the physical object a place in the psychic life of the person and larger community. It "lives" through the attention and meaning given to it. Having been created it offers a door to the past, but simultaneously represents a possibility for future action. In other words, objects are tools that bridge the present to the past as well as the future. A photograph of Martin Luther King may simultaneously commemorate his life and serve as a call for future strivings to help bring about the values he fought for. Similarly objects can serve meanings along a continuum of the self to the larger community. Using the same M.L. King example, a young man may think of King as a possible role model while he also represents a noble expression of acting for the benefit of humanity.
Material life took an intense and unabated turn when Industrialism unleashed an unprecedented new force for the production of objects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ability to mass-produce objects held the promise of providing vast quantities of inexpensive goods to common people, a completely novel situation in the history of humanity, which up to that time relied on craft guilds and their skilled artisans. Modernist aesthetic theories trumpeted the cause of industrialism to improve the quality of life through well-designed objects. Designer Charles Eames summed up the goal of this approach was to bring "the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least." Modernity's project to bring "good goods" to the masses has largely been a success as most of us enjoy hygienic surroundings in a land of material plenty. However, this material proficiency has brought dangers as well.
The Hazards of Materialism
While there is no question that mass production and its resulting goods have raised many aspects of the quality of life, a growing body of research suggests that some of the warnings issued by the world's religions millennia ago may in fact be true, namely, that wealth and happiness are not one and the same. Material success has become so important that there are few measures of personal success, -- such as being known for one's kindness, morality or wisdom, -- that do not pertain to it. We literally wear success on our sleeves. The lack of alternative models of "the good life" has given rise to a psychic monopoly of options for living well. Unfortunately, data also show that persons whose goals are mostly limited to material acquisition are less happy than those with more humanistic orientations. Furthermore, because objects have become so prolific, the possibility of becoming seduced by their addictive charms, or of orienting one's life around their acquisition, has become an alternative for a greater number of people than ever before. Of course, this is not to suggest that greed and avarice are new items on the human agenda; indeed not -- only that it is now even easier to succumb to these desires. Ironically, new research suggests that persons with strong material orientations often end up less materially well-off than those who engage in an activity for the enjoyment it brings. Outside of the psychological and social hazards posed by materialism, there is the environmental cost of sustaining resource-intensive lifestyles for millions. While it may be a normal reflex for humans to display their status through objects, to do so on a scale involving a population of 6 billion people involves more resources than the planet can offer.
David Myers' writings on "the pursuit of happiness" has shown that the material advances of the last half-century have not been accompanied by concomitant advances in the psychic and social well-being. Myers gives ample evidence of a "social recession" exemplified by rising rates of divorce, depression and suicide. Moreover, the day-to-day ease that is brought on by affluence carries with it the double-edged sword of insulating one from facing many of life's difficulties. In other words, excessive materialism provides a shield against difficulty and simultaneously deprives individuals of the skills for confronting adversity. Noted by Russell Belk, this is further exacerbated by habituation to yesterday's luxuries which become today's necessities. An ever-upward spiraling standard of wants-becoming-needs may be good for the economy, but keeps happiness a pursuit rather than a realization.
However, this does not suggest that wealth bears no relationship to well-being. Indeed, the materially impoverished do not enjoy a high quality of life and benefit greatly from increased amounts of material resources. Yet, above a certain level of income, the "returns to happiness" diminish and generally hold constant.
Tim Kasser, whose work has explored the role of materialist and humanist individuals and the quality of life, reported findings similar to Myers', namely, that wealth and well-being do not necessarily move hand-in-hand. Kasser also goes on to show that when a person's orientation to materiality is excessive, quality of life deteriorates. If the allocation of a person's attention is taken up with material gain, other elements that make life worthwhile get pushed out. Therefore, when compared to humanistically-oriented people, materialistic individuals are less happy, less fulfilled, and possess lower self-esteem, often contingent on their possessions. They have fewer, weaker, and less lasting relationships and tend to look at them instrumentally, and with less empathy. People with a high material orientation risk addictions and alcoholism. Children of troubled families act more materialistically than do children of happy families.
Ken Sheldon's work suggests a further irony of these findings, namely, that those who are excessively materialistic often are less materially successful than those who enjoy their work, yet do not make it the paramount goal of their lives. Materialistically-oriented persons in their pursuit of extrinsic reward not only fail to enjoy their actions, but also fail to secure their intended goals. This raises the question that if most people say they favor intrinsic values, and if people who strongly favor material values tend to be unhappier than those who do not, while also being less materially successful, why does materialism persist?
Both Regula Pfister and Alexandra Freund offered possible explanations to this paradox. Freund's action-theory perspective suggests that material goals have clear, short-term, and concrete goals with immediate feedback; while goals like personal development provide unclear feedback over long periods of time and are often unpleasant and painful as immediate experiences. Their rewards accrue cumulatively over longer time horizons. Using the experience sampling method, Pfister found evidence to support's Freund's hypothesis. Work situations carried a dual valence of making workers feel feeling powerful and alert, while also making them feel stressed, anxious and angry. However, when they experienced flow in leisure they felt powerful as well as relaxed (while experiencing much less flow in leisure than at work). So, while working, challenges were found to be positively correlated to both positive and negative activation. Flow at work was less related to momentary happiness and satisfaction but correlated positively with long-term happiness and satisfaction. Because consumption challenges are low, they yield an easy but very short term reward, compared to actions which may be momentarily unpleasant but more beneficial in the long term.
The emotional structure of the consumption experience, as well as the ubiquitous reinforcement of it by advertising, lends it to easily being an addictive experience. As noted by Mick in the first meeting, addiction represents the particularly pernicious aspect of material life. While many have hypothesized why addiction to materiality is so rampant, Sheldon Solomon, for instance, suggests that it is a symbolic conflation of legitimate needs with useless desires, most agree that the mindless aspect of the addiction is the most psychically hobbling. If consumption for constant immediate gratification is carried out on a large scale the potential for waste is massive, and in the end offers little lasting psychic growth. It would seem that bridging this long-term social trap seems then a possible avenue for further inquiry.
In addition to many of the psychological and social costs of highly-materialistic lifestyles, perhaps the hazard that carries the most danger for the continued well-being of the species are the environmental costs of consumption. The Union of Concerned Scientists has identified the leading consumption-related environmental problems as air and water pollution, global warming, and habitat alteration. The Union's strategy is to focus attention on the most harmful consumer-generated causes of environmental damage. Their data show that three areas contribute the most: transportation, food, and household operations. By isolating the largest offenders, efforts centered on reducing their impacts will have the most effective results.
It should come as no surprise that the automobile is the greatest offender in contributing nearly 50% to toxic air pollution and 30% of common air pollution as the share of the total consumer impact. On the other hand, public and passenger transportation sources (including mass transit and commercial airlines) only contribute around 2.5% and 3.5% respectively. By targeting this one source of pollution great gains can be made in cleaning the air. Automobile use also affects land use, when the built environment is structured around the car, through land-gobbling multi-lane roads, parking lots, and strip mall development, and accounts for 14%of the environmental impacts in that category.
Food consumption represents the next largest category, with meat consumption (specifically beef) having the largest impact in common water pollution, water use, and land use. According to the Union, livestock grazing accounts for 40% of the United States land area. While non-animal sources of food, like grains, vegetables and fruits are significantly less harmful than cattle, the water usage required to cultivate plants is enormous and represents the largest environmental cost of this category.
Finally, household operations, like using heat, electricity to soap and water accounts for third largest consumer-driven environmental offender. Within this category, heating, hot water and air conditioning; appliances and lighting and water, sewage and solid waste disposal are the three largest sub-categories in order of their environmental impact. The first two categories contribute the most to common air pollution and greenhouse gases, while appliances and lighting require electricity that is often generated by polluting fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly, the constantly running refrigerator represents the largest consumer of household electricity, 1383 Kilowatts a year. Lighting sources, television and an electric dryer (a distant fourth) follow in terms of annual electric consumption.
In environmental terms, the largest gains may not necessarily come from decreasing the amount of clever knick-knacks in orbit around our lives, but through rethinking and retooling the most very basic decisions of everyday life: how we get from A-to-B, what we eat, and where and how we live.
Alternatives to Materialism
Objects, like any tool, can be used for good or ill. Given the abbreviated list of benefits and hazards associated with them, there are alternatives for living well and relating healthily to our material world.
Perhaps an ethic that could be considered is Michael Benedikt's conception of value, that which preserves or creates more lifefulness, as a possible measure of desirability. For Benedikt, value comes from an optimal configuration of organization and complexity. Value comes from positive changes in this optimal balance. If we assume a psychological stance, than the notion of what is valuable applied to the life of a person would hold that value are those things that allow her to be at once a more complex and organized creature. Therefore, the things, actions, relationships, and knowledge that allow for this development should be sought out.
To this notion of upward spiraling development, one might also adapt the notion of striving for human excellence, advocated long ago by Aristotle and Socrates and further elaborated by Judeo-Christian values. Philosopher Albert Borgmann delineates a possible set of "goods" to aim for:
(1) The excellent person is a world citizen who understands the structure and coherence of the universe in its scientific and historical dimensions. (2) The excellent person is gallant as well as good and intelligent and seeks physical valor as well as intellectual refinement. (3) The excellent person is accomplished in music and versed in the arts…(4) the virtue of charity according to which real strength lies not in material force or cunning but in the power to give and to forgive, to help and to heal.
While in the past these might have been seen as goals for an elite, the very promise of Modernity and its productive technology was to offer this ideal as a possibility to the masses through the provision of leisure. It seems, however, that leisure as the modern "the pursuit of happiness" has devolved into a passive and consumable "pursuit of comfort" rather than an "exercise of vital powers" for personal and social excellence. Borgmann also suggest that these conditions can be concrete measured and the excellence of the society could be ascertained by asking:
(1) How well educated and literate are people? How well do they understand the scientific structure of the world? How active and informed is their participation in politics? (2) What typically is the condition of people's physical vigor and skill? (3) How well are acquainted are people with the arts and how proficient are they in making music and in other artistic practices? (4) How compassionate are people privately and as citizens? How devoted are they to helping others who suffer from deprivation and hardships? How conciliatory are they toward their opponents and enemies?
These questions are only one possibility of measuring human excellence. Another alternative has been suggested by Hazel Henderson, whose Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators try to provide an alternative measurement to GNP as a metric of human well-being. In addition to measuring human well-being, some organizations are dedicated to providing resources for people to find greater meaning and enjoyment from daily life.
The Center for a New American Dream, represented by Jane Zeender their Director of Marketing, is a non-profit organization dedicated to "more fun, less stuff," seeks to provide workable, enjoyable and sustainable alternatives to the culture of consumption. Their upbeat approach to social and environmental change provides a model for leveraging the public's concern about these issues into effective action. Jane introduced us to the work of the Union of Concerned Scientists discussed above. Also, the Center issues a periodic "Step-by-Step" guide to reducing one's environmental impact has suggested practical measures like cold washing and line drying laundry to reduce carbon emissions associated with heating water and electric dryers. They suggest a vision of the good life that focuses on cultivating a sense of enjoyment in everyday life, developing healthy relationships and communities and a material culture that treads lightly on the earth. Part of their mission is to offer up enjoyable alternatives to consumption, like methods on how to construct a genealogy, Their work addresses the interdependent elements of a healthy psychic and social life coupled with a thriving ecosystem. Interestingly, much of the Center's work focuses on enhancing what Ken Sheldon suggested as necessary dimensions of psychological health: autonomy, competence and relatedness.
Another alternative is to harness the human capacity for creating into aesthetic skills. Diane Brigham, Director of Education at the Getty Center, offered an art-based exercise for self-exploration. Through encounters with art, people can be taught the skills for engaging with an object and gauging one's responses to it as a means of enhancing self-understanding as well as becoming sensitive to one's surroundings. Of course, learning skills to create works of art, shifts the common role of person-as-consumer to person-as-producer giving a person more control over their material condition.
In addition to these ideas, many other suggestions focused on psychological measures that could be implemented on an individual scale to enhance the quality of life with means other than material consumption.
An aspect that concerned many of our meeting's participants was the seemingly addictive aspect of consumer behavior, of people consuming because of a reflex influenced by a relentless bombardment of advertising. Many invoked the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, a skill cultivating non-judgmental awareness, as an antidote to this. By fully paying attention to one's feelings, cognitions, and intentions it is easier to note when impulsive, stereotyped behavior is occurring and thus rendering it more controllable.
Allied to this idea was the notion that some may not be materialistic enough in that they only gain a shallow appreciation for the things they buy and quickly tire of. By cultivating a sense of material connoisseurship more value can be extracted from individual items reducing the need to quickly fill a void with another purchase. Bob Emmons' research on the cultivation of gratitude also provides a psychological device for savoring and appreciating what is present rather than looking for the next object of desire.
Emmons also suggested that spirituality may also play a role to a materialistic lifestyle. Many of these paralleled The Center for a New American Dream's strategy: "Nurturing Nature" by taking on the role of stewards for the natural world; voluntary simplicity, rejecting the accepted practice of accumulation in favor of more communitarian goals; and cultivating virtue, which provides alternative goals from a materialistic way of life.
Providing alternative goals is also the theme of Kevin Rathunde's notion of Abiding Interest. Rathunde reminds us that the origins of the word interest is "to be between", and that an abiding interest can be thought of as a sustained and evolving relationship between the self and the world. In essence, interests give attention a goal to strive for. By being able to structure attention around the object of interest, Rathunde hypothesizes that a person may be less liable to fall into a trap of mindless materialism. He also suggests that abiding interest can be used to escape the social trap discussed by Sheldon and others. Being able to identify wholly and positively with immediate perceptual processes as well as step back, perceive objectively, set goals and so on, one bridges the proximal-distal gap often involved in setting the social trap.
If the cultivation of abiding interest represents one method to steel the mind against possible parasites, another would be Attila Olah's notion of a psychological immune system. For Olah, a healthy person is one who solves adaptive tasks with subjective well-being and life satisfaction and is able to create a good fit between her behavior and the demands of the context. There are three primary components to this system, the extent to which a person trusts the environment and the strength of her identity; the ability to operate effectively in the world; and the ability to adapt to meet the needs of the situation. These three interacting systems help to optimize one's sense of effective being
Social traps were also a subject of Barbara Fredrickson's exploration of positive and negative emotions. Negative emotions tend to evoke specific action tendencies (like fight or flight) while positive ones are much less specific and also expand one's repertoire of actions. She terms this as a broaden-and-build model, where expansive reactions to experience set up the possibility for further growth. Interest leads to exploration, attraction to approach; while negative emotions narrow the possibilities of action. This in the short term may prove adaptive and beneficial. However, over the long term deleterious as one's repertoire of behaviors becomes increasingly constrained. It might be that positive emotions provide a platform for personal growth and the cultivation of a lasting contentment and satisfaction that acts as a buffer to messages and urges to consume.
Conclusion and Some Possible Proposals
Over the course of the four meetings, we generated a large list of possible research programs and interventions that would address the themes explored here. Here is an abbreviated version to stimulate the imagination:
Possible Research/Initiatives About the Benefits of Materialism
· Understand different ways objects play a role in everyday life, develop a lexicon.
· Developing an understanding of the mechanics of connoisseurship.
Possible Research About the Costs of Materialism
1. Develop a language of consumption to understand motivations for consumption and types of acquisitive behavior.
· Media programs on critical consumption practices for youth.
· How to measure the ecological footprint of individual/household behavior?
· Develop materials for a college class on exploring materialism
Alternatives to Materialism.
1. Develop a "Positive Psychology" of human beings with one goal to make a healthy person resistant to the parasitic tendencies of consumerist cultures.
· Work with Youth Development Organizations (like the Scouting Movement) to provide alternative activities.
· Because research suggests that children of troubled families are more materialistic, develop an interactive PBS show on "The Healthy Family".
· Create a mirror-image of the Holmes-Rahe Stress Index to assess the positive contribution of various life events.
In any case, these are only a few of the possible alternatives that we have developed against heedless consumption. We would like to ask you to think over the various categories proposed here (and more generally on the following matrix) and choose the row where you would be most interested in making a contribution. We look forward to developing these thoughts through our further conversations.