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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

How to Let Go of Materialism

Enhance your well-being by focusing on deeper goals



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Money can't buy happiness, but placing less value on the things it can buy may improve your mental health. The longest ever study on this topic finds that becoming less materialistic leads to more contentment in life—and suggests ways to get to that happy place.

Four related experiments investigated how changes in materialism affect well-being. The first three studies surveyed natural changes in materialistic values over six months, two years and 12 years in adults in the U.S. and Iceland. At all three junctures, a decreasing focus on acquiring money and things led to more joy and contentment in life.

Fortunately, materialism can be purposefully altered, as the team discovered in the fourth study—the first ever to use a randomized, controlled design to try to change materialistic beliefs. A group of adolescents from the U.S. joined a program designed to lessen the value they place on materialistic goals, whereas a control group did not receive the intervention. In three sessions lasting three hours each, participants were taught about consumer culture. They were also encouraged to clarify their intrinsic values (such as self-growth, closeness with friends and family, and contributing to the community) and to make financial decisions based on those values.

Adolescents who were in the course—but not in the control group—became less materialistic and had higher self-esteem over the next several months. “Intrinsic goals tend to be ones that promote greater well-being and act as a kind of ‘antidote’ to materialistic values,” says Tim Kasser, one of the study's authors and a psychology professor at Knox College.

An important component of the program was that participants went through it with their parents and other adolescents, so they had a lot of social support in changing their values. “It is important to find some like-minded folks who want to join you in shifting away from materialism—they are out there, I promise,” Kasser says.

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