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 are the dangers of a materialistic lifestyle? How can you escape materialism?

A materialistic lifestyle leads to lower self-esteem and a lack of meaningful connections which causes depression and anxiety. Escaping materialism starts with acknowledging the short-term satisfaction that comes with material things, and filling the void with activities that bring you joy just for the fun of it.

Read on to discover how to curb a materialistic lifestyle.

Curbing a Materialist Lifestyle

Reconnecting to meaningful work is important, but when we’re inundated with harmful, materialist messages the moment we step outside of the office, it’s hard for those positive effects to carry over. For this reason, the second thing we must do to reconnect to a meaningful life is to curb materialism and reduce its impact on our lives. 

While we all know that living a materialistic lifestyle makes people depressed. Most of us don’t have the individual freedom to completely shut out commercial culture by moving to the countryside and ignoring all advertising. Instead, to tackle materialism, we need to take collective action to reframe how, on a societal level, we think about “stuff.”

Advertising Makes Us Miserable

As we discussed in Chapter 5, the biggest culprit in the rise of materialism is advertising, which tells us that we “need” certain products in order to be successful, fit in, and be happy. One approach to stop this cycle of depression is to ban advertising altogether. It may seem like a radical step, but several countries have banned different types of advertising with measurable success in helping to discourage the materialistic lifestyle. In Brazil, the city of São Paulo banned all forms of outdoor advertising in 2007 with the widely popular “Clean City Law”—now, 70% of residents believe it’s made the city a better place to live. 

Refocus on Intrinsic Motivations

Advertising bans can create a healthier environment for future generations, but they can take years to implement. In the meantime, a focused, collective effort to spend time and money on the things that actually make us happy can boost self-esteem and help curb your materialistic lifestyle.

One experiment in Minneapolis paved the way for this type of intervention. A group of sixty parents and their teenage children met regularly with a financial advisor to discuss their family’s relationship to money and materialism (a separate group of parents and their children served as a control group and didn’t participate in discussions). Over the course of three months, the advisor guided them through a series of exercises designed to help them discard their materialistic lifestyle and reconnect to their values:

  • First, the advisor asked everyone in the group to write down what money means to them. For most people, money was a source of constant stress because there never seemed to be enough. 
  • Second, the participants broke up into smaller groups to talk about why they spent money in the ways they did. Aside from necessities like food and rent, many people in the group said that they bought things as a status symbol or to distract themselves when they felt miserable. 
  • Third, the advisor asked the group to list their most important values—things like being honest or taking care of others. For many people, reflecting on the gap between how they spend money and what they really value was the first step to reframing their relationship with materialism. 
  • Fourth, everyone in the group described their experience with finally buying something after wanting it for a long time. Almost everyone described the excitement leading up to the purchase, followed by the faint disappointment of getting the item home and realizing that the feelings of loneliness or insecurity that prompted the purchase were still there.  
  • Fifth, the advisor asked the group to list their intrinsic motivations—things they would happily do for free if money were no issue, like spending more time with their children or playing a musical instrument just for the joy of it.
  • Finally—and most importantly—the advisor challenged the group to act on those intrinsic motivations, in whatever small ways they could. Group members helped keep each other accountable and encouraged each other to make choices that aligned with their values instead of their desire for “stuff.”

Social scientists tested the participants’ materialism and self-esteem at the start of the study and then again after the three-month intervention. The results were groundbreaking: The group who dug into their money habits, shed their materialistic lifestyle, and refocused on their values (rather on spending for status or emotional reasons) had significantly lower levels of materialism and significantly higher self-esteem than the control group. This suggests that, with group support, it’s possible to resist the barrage of depressing messages from a materialistic culture. 

Why a Materialistic Lifestyle Can Lead to Depression

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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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