In Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club,” Tyler Durden taught us that “advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” Even though Durden turned out to be a mental creation, who recruited a private army to blow up a dozen skyscraper credit-card offices, his philosophy remains true to the present. Indeed, researchers have discovered a causal relationship between materialism and low self-esteem: the more you buy, the less happy you will be, contrary to which, the happier you are, the less you buy. But what’s the deal? What do buying Sidekicks, CDs, designer clothes, house plants and better cell phones have to do with how we feel about ourselves?
Part of the answer lies in the research of Lan Nguyen Chaplin of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Deborah Roedder John of the University of Minnesota. They discovered that even a simple gesture to raise self-esteem dramatically decreases materialism, providing a way to cope with insecurity. Materialism is used to fix low self-esteem in many different ways, from buying a Corvette in order to overcome a mid-life crisis to buying a nice sweater after having a bad day.
Some people buy skimpy or fashionable clothing to show off their bodies or to attract attention. “By the time children reach early adolescence, and experience a decline in self-esteem, the stage is set for the use of material possessions as a coping strategy for feelings of low self-worth,” Chaplin and John noted.
The paradox is that consumerism is good for the economy, but ultimately bad for the soul. For example, the economy prospers when we buy new wardrobes every season, but this also implies that our value is extrinsic, not essential. There are also the financial costs of heavy materialism, not to mention the environmental effects.
Just about all of us want more income so that we can consume more. For some, this is the core reason for attending college, so we can earn the credentials to find a better-paying job in order to afford better stuff