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Materialism may make it harder to bounce back from adversity

Kelly Dilworth

A materialistic attitude isn’t just bad for your wallet; new research shows that it may also make it harder for you to recover from adversity.

In a study published this summer in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, researchers argue that people who place a high value on stuff tend to have lower levels of self-esteem and are more prone to mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress, when faced with negative events.

Not surprisingly, researchers also found that materialistic people often cope with some of life’s most stressful challenges — such as a serious illness or a natural disaster — by compulsively shopping away their anxieties.

“When the going gets tough, the materialistic go shopping,” said lead author Ayalla Ruvio in a Sept. 25 news release about the study. “And this compulsive and impulsive spending is likely to produce even greater stress and lower well-being. Essentially, materialism appears to make bad events even worse.”

The researchers came to their conclusions after completing two separate surveys of Israeli and American study subjects who were experiencing varying levels of stress.

For the first part of the study, the attitudes and mental health of a group of Israeli citizens — about half of whom were living under intense rocket fire from Palestine — were compared. The study found that subjects who exhibited higher levels of materialism also had a much harder time coping with the fact that their lives were under immediate threat.

Not only were they more likely to exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their experiences; they also tended to undermine themselves by trying to make themselves feel better through excessive shopping.

“The Israeli study reveals that, when faced with a mortal threat such as a terrorist attack, highly materialistic individuals report higher levels of post-traumatic stress, compulsive consumption and impulsive buying than their less materialistic counterparts,” wrote researchers in an introduction to the study.

To get a better sense of why a materialistic attitude had such a potent effect on the Israeli citizens’ mental health, a second survey was conducted of U.S. citizens who weren’t living under ongoing attacks. 

American study subjects who reported caring more deeply about material things were more likely to use retail therapy as a means of coping with an existential fear of death — regardless of whether their lives were under immediate threat. In addition, they were also more likely to report feeling worse about themselves overall, which made them more prone to self-defeating behaviors.

After analyzing the results of the American study, researchers concluded that the lower levels of self-esteem exhibited by materialistic individuals may be why they have a harder time than others coping with emotional stress.

Feeling worse about yourself can undermine your ability to successfully grapple with life’s challenges and not feel defeated by them. That, in turn, can ultimately lead to a host of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The relationship between materialism and stress may be more harmful than commonly thought,” concluded Ruvio in the release. It’s not just that placing a high value on material objects could prompt you to make poor decisions during stressful periods. Materialism may also mask deeper emotional problems, such as a deep-seated fear of what will happen if something goes terribly wrong.

The takeaway?

If you find that you tend to place a high value on the stuff you own or wish you could buy, you may want to take a closer look within and reexamine the emotions that are prompting you to take solace in material objects.

Stressful challenges are inevitable. How successful you are in meeting those challenges depends, in part, on the internal resources you develop to help yourself cope with extreme misfortune.

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