How to Give up Your Materialistic Lifestyle

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Lost Connections" by Johann Hari. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it mean to be extrinsically motivated? Why are materialistic people vulnerable to depression?

You are an extrinsically motivated person if your sense of fulfillment in life comes from reaching external milestones like acquiring material things, climbing the corporate leader, social recognition, and so on. An overreliance on extrinsic motivation can lead to depression because the joy you get from material things is always short-lived.

Read on to learn more about the dangers of being extrinsically motivated.

The Pitfalls Faced By Extrinsically Motivated People

How much you enjoy your work life also depends on whether you’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to do the work itself. Intrinsic motivation is what drives you to do things purely for the joy of them. If you love running and spend all your free time doing it, you’re acting on intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation is a means to an end: If you hate running but keep doing it because you’re trying to lose weight, that’s extrinsic motivation. You’re not doing it for the joy of the activity itself—you’re doing it for the payoff.

Today’s culture emphasizes extrinsic motivation because we base our definition of success on external milestones—like climbing the corporate ladder, getting married, buying a house, and so on. The logic is that meeting those milestones is the only way to be successful, and being successful is the only way to be happy. You may not love the actual day-to-day routine of your job, but you stick with it because it pays well, carries a fancy title, and makes it possible to buy that nice house. The job itself is just the means to achieve that goal.

Extrinsic motivation isn’t necessarily a bad thing—you’re probably not intrinsically motivated to go to the dentist for yearly checkups, but it’s still a good thing to do. But when the majority of your time is spent pursuing extrinsic motives, it’s a recipe for misery. Studies show that achieving intrinsic goals increases happiness, but achieving extrinsic goals doesn’t. Whether it’s a promotion, a bigger house, the newest gadgets—they might give you a fleeting burst of joy, but it wears off quickly, and doesn’t make you happier overall. In fact, over time, it does the opposite: Dozens of studies from all over the world show that the more extrinsically motivated you are, the more likely you are to develop depression and anxiety.

Materialism Leads to Depression

Extrinsic motivation often manifests as materialism because modern society uses money and material objects as status indicators. If your extrinsic goal is to be seen as successful, you’re more likely to focus on having expensive clothes or a fancy car because most people associate wealth with success. Hari calls these superficial, materialistic extrinsic values “junk values”—like “junk food,” they may be satisfying in the moment, but too much of them can make you sick. Over time, these junk values lead to depression for four main reasons:

1) Extrinsically motivated, materialistic people have shorter, lower-quality relationships with others. We’ve seen how important authentic connections are for preventing depression, but if you’re laser-focused on climbing the corporate ladder so you can afford to live a lavish lifestyle, you’re more likely to seek out connections with people because of what they can do for you, not who they are. On top of that, if your relationships are based on status symbols and perceived wealth, they’re more likely to crumble if that wealth someday disappears.

2) People experience fewer flow states when they’re focused on materialistic, extrinsic goals. Flow states are times when you’re so absorbed in an activity that you lose all sense of time. In flow, you lose yourself in the joy of what you’re doing instead of focusing on ego-driven questions about what other people will think or how much money you’ll make for doing it. Studies show that getting into a flow state frequently is an important part of overall happiness—but it’s almost impossible to be in flow when you spend most of your time focused on making enough money to buy the next exciting gadget or expensive sneakers. Constantly feeling the pull of “stuff” makes it difficult to fully sink into an activity purely for the joy of it. 

3) Extrinsically motivated, materialistic people have a less secure sense of self-worth. If you’re driven by money or status, you’ll always be worrying about what other people think of you and calculating whether you’re impressive enough to earn external rewards. Over time, constantly questioning whether you’re “good enough” chips away at your self-esteem. 

4) Junk values don’t meet our fundamental social needs. When you spend all your time chasing the status and material stuff you think you need to be happy, you inevitably neglect your real need for connection. For example, if you work late because you think the resulting money and status will make you happy, you’ll be disappointed. But if you go home and genuinely connect with your loved ones during that time instead, you’ll actually achieve that happiness. 

Despite these harmful effects of junk values, it’s easy to get distracted by them because we’re all steeped in materialism from a young age. Studies show that kids as young as three can recognize one hundred brand logos. A separate study showed that after watching just two commercials for a certain toy, most four- and five-year-olds would rather play with a “mean boy” who owns that toy than with a “really nice boy” who doesn’t own the toy. Conversely, most kids who weren’t exposed to the two commercials chose to play with the nice boy, even though he didn’t own the toy. Essentially, it only took two commercials to persuade kids to choose a material object over a human connection. 

This effect doesn’t lose power as kids grow up—in fact, it gets even stronger. Advertisers prey on typical teenage insecurities to sell everything from clothing to cologne. The link between a certain product and increased social status then spills over into kids’ social circles and reinforces the message even further—if the ad itself didn’t sell them on the product, the fact that all the cool kids are buying it might do the trick. Thankfully, the social environment can also be a good influence: If the people in your social circle have healthy, anti-materialist values, you’re more likely to focus on those healthy values too. However, there’s a limit to how much any individual can escape the materialist vortex—it will take policy changes at the societal level to truly put an end to the problem (like advertising bans, which we’ll explore in more detail in Chapter 9).

Why Extrinsically Motivated People Get Depressed

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  • The psychological and social factors that contribute to mental illness
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  • Why Amish people hardly ever get depressed

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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