Materialism and misery, and the need for change

Materialism and misery

By Graham Peebles

We live under the omnipresent shadow of a political and economic system which promotes materialism, selfishness and individual success over group wellbeing. It is a model of civilization that is making us miserable and ill.

Dependent on continuous consumption, everything and everyone is seen as a commodity, and competition and ambition are extolled as virtues. Together with reward and punishment, this trinity of division has infiltrated and polluted all areas of contemporary life, including healthcare and education.

This is a system that denies compassion and social unity. Unhappiness and mental illness, as well as extreme levels of inequality, flow from the unjust root, causing social tensions, eroding trust and community cohesion.

Over half the world’s population (3.5 billion people) live in suffocating poverty on under USD 2 a day (the World Bank’s official poverty line), while the wealthiest 10 per cent own 85 per cent of global household wealth. This level of inequality is growing, is unjust and shameful, and has far reaching consequences.

Materialistically obsessed societies such as America (where income and wealth inequality is the highest of any industrialized nation), have higher levels of drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness, crime and incarceration, as well as child pregnancies and homicides, than more equal nations.

Materialistically obsessed societies… have higher levels of drug and alcohol dependency, mental illness, crime and incarceration, as well as child pregnancies and homicides, than more equal nations.

People in unequal societies are suspicious of “the other” – that’s anyone who looks, thinks, and/or acts differently – and generally speaking don’t trust one another. A mere 15 per cent of people in America confessed to trusting their fellow citizens, compared to 60 per cent in less unequal parts of the world. The resulting divisions aggravate social tensions, fuelling criminality and setting in motion a cycle of mistrust and paranoia.

Focus on the material, on self-fulfilment and success places us in competition with one another and strengthens feelings of distrust, alienation and division. All of this run contrary to and move us away from our underlying nature, resulting in the inculcation of fear and insecurity.

Mental illness, including anxiety and depression – a worldwide epidemic claiming 5 per cent of the global population – are further consequences of this dysfunctional social model.

Millions are hooked on pharmaceuticals (legal and illegal), much to the delight of the multinational drug companies whose yearly profits in America alone nestle comfortably in the trillions of dollars. Suicide, according to a major report by the World Health Organization (WHO), is the third highest cause of death among adolescents (road accidents and HIV are the first and second causes), and the primary cause is depression.

Desire, division, discontent

Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught that desire and attachment to the objects of desire are the roots of all suffering. His message of moderation and balance is more relevant today than perhaps at any other time.

Those who love material objects are less inclined to love other people and the natural environment. So says Tim Kasser of Knox University, Illinois, in The High Price of Materialism after various studies. Love of objects strengthens the desire principle, causing fear and dissatisfaction, giving rise to anxiety, stress and unhappiness. Desire entraps: insatiable, it breeds fear and is the underlying cause of discontent and all manner of associated sufferings.

“Abandoning all desire and acting free from longing, without any sense of mineness or sense of ego one attains to peace.” (Bhagavad Gita 11, verse 71) Such perennial truths expressed by the Buddha, Christ and other visionary teachers, as well as Krishna, are ignored in the search for immediate happiness derived from sensory pleasure.

The neo-liberal model promotes short-term artificial goals: goals that strengthen desire, greed and dissatisfaction, pre-requisites for encouraging consumerism and materialism, and the perpetual expansion of the ubiquitous “market”.

In a detailed study by Baylor University, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Jo-Ann Tsang found that materialistic people “are more likely to focus on what they do not have and are unable to be grateful for what they do have, whether it is their family, a nice house or a good job”. Contentment is the natural enemy of the system; discontent is it’s life-blood, serving well the “masters of mankind” as Adam Smith famously tagged the ruling elite and their “vile maxim” – “all for ourselves and nothing for other people”. 

With its focus on the material – including the physical aspect of ourselves – the monetized system encourages vanity, selfishness and narcissistic behaviour. It… strengths division, separation and aloneness, feelings that are in opposition to the underlying truth of human unity…

In The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, Graham Music refers to a study at Berkeley University that seems to demonstrate Smith’s truism. “The higher up the social-class ranking people are, the less pro-social, charitable and empathetically they behaved… consistently those who were less rich showed more empathy and more of a wish to help others”. Self-centred behaviour, motivated by reward, not only erodes any sense of community and social responsibility, it also breeds unhappiness. Music, a consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London, makes the point that our “monetized Western world is going to make us more and more lose touch with our social obligations.”

With its focus on the material – including the physical aspect of ourselves – the monetized system encourages vanity, selfishness and narcissistic behaviour. It further strengths division, separation and aloneness, feelings that are in opposition to the underlying truth of human unity…

A materialistic value system, with its focus on the individual as opposed to the group, inevitably feeds a consciousness of separation. If humanity is in fact one, it follows that we are naturally unselfish, socially responsible and helpful.

Reward and punishment, and desire and fear

In a series of fascinating behavioural studies, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observed that 14-month-old babies spontaneously acted with kindness when an adult in the room needed help. Children love helping, and they do not need a reward. Actions, which are inherently selfless offer an intrinsic reward because they facilitate relationship with our true nature. 

In fact when material rewards were introduced the children’s focus shifted, they lost interest in the act of kindness and became fixated on the object of reward. Their action became conditioned and in a very real sense polluted. Observing this fact, Music concludes that “rewards don’t make anyone happy and something very fundamental is lost when we reward for certain behaviours”. Other studies have shown that “toddlers feel happier giving treats than receiving them”. (Mercator Net

With reward and punishment come desire and fear, desire for the reward and fear or anxiety over possible punishment if we fail. The effect is individual discontent and collective disharmony. Selfishness is strengthened, and, in opposition to the underlying impulse to be helpful, kindness is sacrificed, creating the conditions for depression and stress.

Change is urgently needed; change rooted in justice and the wellbeing of the group and not the individual; change imaginatively designed, which sees the economy as a way of meeting human rights and addressing human need, not one that plays on and inflames human desire.

Studies undertaken in San Francisco found that those members of the community who “volunteered and engaged in other forms of giving when they were adolescents were much less likely to become depressed, even as they got older. New research suggests there may be a biochemical explanation for the positive emotions associated with doing good.” (Healthy Living) Serving the needs of others is decentralizing, it shifts ones focus away from the self, with its petty, albeit painful anxieties.

Reward and punishment are major weapons of neo-liberalism, which has infiltrated almost every area of contemporary society. The destructive duality is a methodology common in many areas of education, and of course saturates corporate life. Goals, bonuses, commission, perks: these are the language of business, the motivating force for activity.

The present unjust economic model has fostered a value system rooted in materialism that is a major cause of unhappiness, anxiety and depression. Change is urgently needed; change rooted in justice and the wellbeing of the group and not the individual; change imaginatively designed, which sees the economy as a way of meeting human rights and addressing human need, not one that plays on and inflames human desire.

The materialist may hold that mankind is naturally selfish, and that competition, reward and ambition are necessary and good. Without them we would do nothing and society would grind to a dysfunctional halt, goes the narrow reactionary argument.

This conveniently cynical view of man’s nature (usually one held by those who are more or less economically and socially comfortable) is fundamentally wrong and is used to perpetuate the divisive model. The damaging effects of this model are being revealed by a range of studies, which substantiate the ancient message that human kindness, selflessness and community service are not only positive attributes to aspire to, they are the healthy, natural and peaceful way for humanity to live.

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