N.B: This essay was initially submitted to Islamic Online University, Department of Psychology (with a few additions). It is thus subjected to copyright. Enjoy!
There is a reason why we all love to see ‘SALE!’ on our favourite shopping malls or anywhere really; it means buying, buying and more buying. There is some sort of excitement that comes with shopping and an ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterwards when we buy things we want, even when not really needed. We often confuse this short-term spark of endorphins and dopamine to be happiness until the stuff we have bought lay around for some while and we realize it wasn’t such a big deal anyway. This leads to further acquisition of other materials so as to acquire the same kind of elation once again. When we become too engrossed in the consuming habit and making it a priority, we end up being materialistic people.
Belk (1984) describes materialism as “The importance a consumer attaches to worldly possessions” and “possessions assume a central place in a person’s life and are believed to provide the greatest sources of satisfaction and dissatisfaction”.
Advertisers play a big role in influencing materialism. Advertisements eat away at people’s happiness and erode the general satisfaction they have with what they already own. It makes people feel inadequate and sometimes tamper with their self-worth and in return, brainwash them into buying ‘happiness’ or items that would make them feel better about themselves.
Unhappiness unfortunately generates a need for material possessions and more wealth. For this reason, unhappiness and materialism reinforce each other; materialism breeds unhappiness and vice versa. (Akers, n.d.) This has been depicted in TV shows, movies and many other online posts where unhappy or depressed people go for shopping in pursuit of extinguishing the emptiness or pain within them. In retrospective, people who frequently watch these TV shows and consume the media a lot, end up believing that materialism is an effective and spontaneous way to acquire happiness.
While many have fallen victim of materialism in pursuit of happiness, another plausible explanation as to why people continue to purchase materialistic goods is the social comparison theory (Festinger, 1948). By the social comparison theory we refer to how people often compare themselves to their peers, friends and family. Trying too hard to fit in, people go an extra mile to purchase, acquire and own things that sometimes don’t work with their current income or savings. Some take huge debts and some misplace their priorities for the same. This might grant them social acceptance and to be regarded from a certain class, it doesn’t grant them happiness or inner peace.
Materialism has adverse effects on the minds and happiness of people. The first thing is that, materialism causes erosion of moral values. When a person puts a great importance to money and worldly possessions, they tend to give up most of their moral values to get what they want. Sometimes they lose their sense of right and wrong and become too pre-occupied in gaining what they yearn for. They become selfish, envious and too aggressive in being discontent with themselves and what they possess. An example of this is when people indulge in disgusting sexual relations just to acquire wealth and status or when they turn against their own friends and family and commit injustice to take wealth from them.
People tend to be blinded with greed once they taste the thrill of materialism. They want more and more and they’d overcome all limits to get what they want. Some people go to the extent of committing murder and breaking the law just to acquire the things they want. It becomes like a dangerous addiction where one no longer cares what they have to do, to get these worldly possessions.
Consumerism may breed narcissistic personalities. According to psychologist Tim Kasser, narcissists turn to actions of arrogance and are very concerned with issues regarding their worth to other people. They turn to other people for self-assurance. Materialism affects the mind in the same way.
Narcissists’ desire for external validation fits well with the conception of materialistic values as extrinsic and focused on others’ praise. They seek power and prestige to cover their inner feelings of emptiness and low self-worth. People in consumerism driven cultures believe their worth as a person is measured by how much stuff they own. As such, it is quite expected that a materialistic person may turn out to be narcissistic as well.
With all the moral values gone, it becomes very difficult for a materialistic person to have healthy relationships with other people. Their entire world revolves around money, wealthy people and how to gain more. As such, they rarely have time to make proper connections and to be compassionate with other beings. Materialism has been proven to be one of the reasons for lower marital quality and unhappiness in marriages.
With all the social media channels that we have, life couldn’t be harder for teenagers and young adults. They spend hours online scrolling and admiring how their peers and their idols seem to be spending and ‘being happy’. There are new trends coming up every other day and keeping up with it all becomes too overwhelming. Society pressures them to ‘look cool’ and keep up with these trends so as to fit in. This makes some of them fall into depression or to be manipulative so as to acquire what they want. Materialism in teens could also lead to self-esteem issues and bullying, because they are pressured into buying these things and are often teased if they don’t.
The alarming mistake we are making is allowing ourselves to believe that material possessions will enhance our well-being and the quality of our lives. Despite this being a wrong belief, it is widely embraced by both the poor and the rich.
Our deen, Islam has set for us the perfect way of living and if followed, most of the agony and pain we inflict on ourselves wouldn’t be available. As much as we as Muslims are encouraged to seek better and comfortable livelihoods, there are limits to everything. Material possessions are regarded as secondary to moral and spiritual development of human personality. We therefore are to strive for the hereafter more than the temporary worldly possessions.
To effectively deal with materialism, a Muslim can adopt the following principles as established by Allah (S.W.) in the qur’an and by the prophet (P.B.U.H).
1. Focusing on the purpose of this dunya: Allah (S.W) clearly states in the qur’an: “And this life of the world is nothing but a sport and play; and as for the next abode, that most surely is the life, did they but know.” (Surah Al Ankabut: 29: 64) This life is temporary and when we die, everything we ever possessed becomes for those we live behind. This should motivate us to strive for the hereafter which is eternal.
If the purpose of life is to become wealthy, there would be no purpose after becoming wealthy. Many people yearn to become wealthy with the thought that this is what will give them happiness and satisfaction of this life, however, when they attain the wealth, the reality dawns on them that materials can never fulfil them. This eventually leads to feelings of despair and depression.
The true purpose of our existence is to worship Allah (S.W) and to seek his pleasure and if we follow His path, then this dunya wouldn’t mean so much to us. We would focus on attaining jannah in the hereafter where we will attain the true happiness and bliss.
2. Being content (Having qan’a3a): Prophet Muhammed (saws) said, “Riches does not mean having a great amount of property; real wealth is self-contentment.” Sahih Bukhari. For us to be content we need to look at those below us and not those above us. We should buy what we need and not just want. We should be content with Allah has given us without being greedy. This will set the limits on how much one seeks to spend on material world.
3. Acting selflessly and giving charity: When we look outward and strive to help other people, the more we become happy and content with our own lives. Allah (S.W) says: “If you offer up to God a goodly loan, He will amply repay you for it, and will forgive you your sins: for God is ever responsive to gratitude, forbearing.” We should feel empathy for the poor and know that they have rights on our excess money. The benefits of sadaqah have been mentioned in many ayahs and hadith and they act as a good shield from materialism.
4. Avoiding Israf: Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) said: “If a son of Adam (as) possessed two vast valleys wherein gold and silver flowed, he would still wish to search for the third one.” This shows how weak we are as human beings when it comes to wealth. Nonetheless, Allah (S.W) warns us, “…and eat and drink and be not extravagant; surely He does not love the extravagant.” (Surah al-Ar’āf 7:31)
5. Showing gratitude to Allah (S.W): Allah promises us in the qur’an that if we are grateful He will indeed increase His favours upon us. Showing gratitude is beneficial for our souls for it makes us appreciate what we are granted and be content with it.
From all the above, we can see there is no direct correlation between income and happiness. Wealth may help in improvement of quality of life but even so, once the basic needs are met, wealth makes very little difference to one’s overall well-being and sense of happiness. In fact, extremely wealthy people actually suffer from higher rates of depression.
In conclusion, materialism has proven to be a dreadful disease in our current society and for us to be truly happy in this life, we need to follow our shariah and sunnah that gives us the right way to live well in this dunya.