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March 21, 2023

Rethinking Materialism by Joe Perez

By Joe Perez

(c) 2013. Photo courtesy of patpitchaya.

(c) 2013. Photo courtesy of patpitchaya.

Every holiday season the cultural discourse includes an especially heavy dose of anti-materialistic messaging. The excesses of consumerist culture are especially visible in distorted forms, such as the spectacle of shoppers at Black Friday and Boxing Day creating mobs which are so fierce they have resulted in violence and the trampling of shoppers. It appears to be a truism that materialism is bad.

Psychological research into materialistic values is sparse but surprisingly uniform in that the studies by and large find materialism harmful and detrimental to measures of mental health and well-being. It appears quite likely that as people have less materialistic values the happier they get. But it is not clear that researchers have gone far enough in elucidating the connection between wealth and wellness.

Informed by an Integral perspective which considers the level of consciousness at which value combinations occur, it is striking that materialistic values are concentrated at an Achievement-oriented level (orange) which is highly individualistic and acquisitive, and post-materialistic values are concentrated at a Pluralist-level (green). It is likely that existing studies of materialism have not paid attention to the importance of considering distinctions between different levels of consciousness, and therefore have come to inaccurate or at least partially true conclusions.

In one important study, published in “The High Price of Materialism” by Tim Kasser, an “Aspirations index” was created to analyze people’s values. Based on surveys and interviews of college students, they concluded that “individuals who were focused on financial success, compared with nonmaterialistic values, were not adapting to society well and were acting in rather destructive ways.”

The values that were best associated with well-being, according to the study, were those linked to the self-actualization concept made popular by Abraham Maslow. Maslow identified the goal of psychological health with a level of development characterized as needing growth, meaning, and aesthetic realization. People who scored high on “vitality” in the study were also judged to be nonmaterialistic, for they have attained the state of feeling fully alive and alert.

It does not seem to occur to most researchers into materialism the possibility that an orientation to financial success is a healthy, desirable, and constructive orientation at a particular stage of development, and its overcoming is likewise a positive thing at a later stage. In other words, many individuals who find great satisfaction in, say, buying a new car, are ruled by values at the Achievement/orange level, and their happiness is stage-appropriate. Individuals who would rather buy psychotherapy sessions are quite possibly governed by Pluralist/green values.

A body of research has advanced the notion that money does buy happiness, particularly if it is spent to buy experiences rather than objects. Happiness with objects, says a study by Ryan Howell of San Francisco State University, buys pleasure which runs out in 6 to 12 weeks. Deriving pleasure from objects is the definition of materialism, whereas deriving pleasure from experiences is called experientialism. Researchers seem pretty clear that experientialism gives more enduring pleasure.

The research contrasting experientialism and materialism opposes these two ways of obtaining pleasure without considering the notion the pleasure itself is experienced differently by selves at different levels of consciousness. It could be true that experientialism is a superior developmental achievement than materialism, but it would take new and Integrally-informed psychological studies to ascertain the links with scholarly rigor.

Nevertheless, let us venture a working hypothesis based on existing knowledge of values. A Teal/Integral approach to wealth would not claim the superiority of materialism over experientialism in the abstract, but value it as a partially valid occurrence of pleasure orientations. Materialistic values would not be condemned in themselves, but only distorted versions of materialistic values such as greed and miserliness on the one hand or excessive meekness or unhealthy altruism on the other.

The result of such a shift of thinking is substantial. Materialism is no longer bad. It is a healthy expression in which human beings derive pleasure from objects. Without healthy materialism, such things as entrepreneurship which are vital to a thriving society get underappreciated. The discourse around materialism evolves from one which is focused on disparaging it to one which is appreciates its healthy forms and which diagnoses and remedies its distortions.





About Joe Perez–Joe Perez is a spiritual mentor, author, poet, and scholar. He is best known for his 2007 book Soulfully Gay. one of the first memoirs in the tradition of World Spirituality based on Integral principles. Associate Director and Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for World Spirituality. His work in progress includes Gay Spirituality and Kalen O’Tolán.



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