How materialism makes us sad
Graham Music, a psychotherapist, has written a book called The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality. It confirms, through use of data collected by scientists over the last 40 years, what we have all long suspected from anecdote and our own eyes: the materialistic tend to be unhappy, those with material goods will remain unhappy, and the market feeds on unhappiness. It is an outreach programme for personal and political desolation; and it is, so far, an outstanding success. Peel away the images of the gaudy objects and find instead a condition. Reading Vanity Fair, I deduce, is now mere collusion with the broken.
I have struggled, for instance, to understand why a British cabinet so loaded with the affluent should be blithe in taking from those who have less – the destruction of the educational maintenance allowance, the bedroom tax, the despicable campaign against disabled people and the unemployed, and so on and on. Why would a wealthy Tory MP (I close my eyes, and land, randomly, on Nadhim Zahawi of Stratford-on-Avon) overcharge the public by more than £4,000 to heat his stables and yet languidly vote for austerity measures? (Not his austerity, obviously: austerity is for the already poor).
It was always madness, even as they pushed the “big society”, and when that imploded like a farting balloon painted an entire class as undeserving, which will be the epitaph of this government: to the undeserving, nothing. Others call this the language of “class war”, an effective and duplicitous soundbite designed to terrify. War? Who wants war? No one, of course.
Except it is not class war. Or rather, there is confusion about who, exactly, is the aggressor. A study at Berkeley University, quoted by Music, provides an answer to the question of why wealthy politicians act as they do, although I do not doubt they delude themselves as to their motives: “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.” This would be an obvious point, except it is daily contradicted by the appalling “skivers versus strivers” rhetoric, a false dichotomy that is also moronic propaganda-by-rhyme.
Tim Kasser, for instance, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, notes that if you love material objects, you are less likely to love people and so, of course, the planet. The connection between the rise of materialism and indifference to the environment is not coincidental; nor is the connection between the rise of materialism and growing inequality, and fear of the stranger, which expresses itself here in a despicable loathing for the Roma, for instance, and there in a fashionable fetish for Ukip. Money is a brutalising agent and a paranoiac drug.
And so it drips down, an infection swallowing happiness and peace. Inequality leads to an erosion of trust between people. When you couch a premise in the language of the market, people become more suspicious and less kindly. This is potentially disastrous, as public services are sold and patients find themselves transformed into consumers. In one fascinating study, people were asked to imagine a hypothetical water shortage; those described as “consumers” were less likely to share the hypothetical water than those described as “individuals”.
Even the language corrupts. Advertising ratchets up the stress, and places us in imagined competition with each other. It encourages yet more materialism, which follows the paths of drug addiction: it offers a false promise of ecstasy, and it does not work. The more we spend on unnecessary material goods, the less happy we are. Mental illness, narcissism and dissatisfaction instead follow.
Here, then, is a world wrought in the image of Dr No.
“Those with more materialistic values consistently have worse relationships, with more conflict,” Music writes. “This is significant if the perceived shift towards more materialistic values in the west is accurate.” We cannot say we were not warned.