Buying Happiness

The Depressing Reality of Materialism

By Peter Dodson

September/October 2007

Illustration by Aimee van Drimmelen

Of all the notions by which our society abides, none influences our daily life more than the idea that “money buys happiness.” It is why Canadians spend an average of 8.9 hours a day working, up from 8.4 hours just 20 years ago. It is why we forfeited 32 million vacation days last year and have over $750 billion in debt. It is why we average 12 full days per year commuting to and from work. But if happiness is what we’re after, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests we’re on a dead-end path. While our houses get bigger and our televisions become wider, flatter, more colourful and cheaper, greater numbers of us are becoming depressed.

Perhaps one of the deepest, darkest secrets of industrial society is that despite rising income, levels of depression are at an all-time high. In a 2006 report published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, “[a]ccording to the respected Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, [if testing were universal,] one in six of us would be diagnosed as having depression or chronic anxiety disorder, which means that one family in three is affected.” The Ontario Ministry of Health Promotion’s Healthy Ontario website states that “[a]t any given time, almost three million Canadians have serious depression.” In other words, around ten percent of Canadians are currently suffering from serious depression.

These numbers are alarming on their own, but when we take into account the fact that since the end of World War II the rates of major depressive disorders have increased tenfold, it is clear that the problem is much more serious than many of us realize. The rates are increasing so rapidly that the World Health Organization has predicted that depression will be the second leading cause of death and disability worldwide by 2020, largely due to undiagnosed depression—-a leading cause of suicide that is becoming an epidemic in its own right.

Last year, the American television news program Dateline featured a report on a lawyer from Toronto who had an incurable form of depression, one that had not been made better by antidepressants, psychotherapy, or even extensive electroshock therapy. Throughout the piece, the reporter commented that the lawyer “had it all,” implying that her affluence and comfort made it all the more confusing why she had depression in the first place, let alone why it was so extreme. The assumption, of course, is that people who have a high standard of living, with the requisite happy family and abundant material goods, should be happy. Not once did the reporter, the patient, her husband, or any of the doctors suggest (or perhaps even consider) that the problem might actually be precisely that she “had it all” in the first place.

While money and material goods afford people a comfortable standard of living, they in no way guarantee one a happy life. In his paper “The Economics of Happiness,” Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics well known for his work in this area, found that even though his research subjects had more than doubled their income over a 28-year period, it did not make them any happier. Indeed, as Bill McKibben reports in the March/April 2007 issue of Mother Jones, income only correlates with happiness until the point where a person’s basic needs are met (about $10,000 per year). After that point, increases in income simply do not correlate to increased wellbeing: “The ‘life satisfaction’ of pavement dwellers—-homeless people—-in Calcutta is among the lowest recorded,” McKibben writes, “but it almost doubles when they move into a slum, at which point they are basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from 47 nations.”

Not only does more money not generally translate into greater happiness, but researchers like Tim Kasser and Juliet Schor have shown that the intense pursuit of wealth and material goods can actually make a person ill. In Born to Buy, Schor’s work with “tweens” (children between 8 and 12) showed that “[t]he more they buy into the consumer materialist messages, the worse they feel about themselves, the more depressed they are, and the more they are beset by anxiety, headaches, stomach aches and boredom.” Kasser’s studies have borne similar results, and he concludes in his book, The High Price of Materialism, that “when people follow materialistic values and organize their lives around attaining wealth and possessions, they are essentially wasting their time as far as well-being is concerned.” It would seem that while striving to live like Oprah may seem a good idea, it could have tragic mental health consequences.

But why are people more at risk for problems like depression the more they embrace materialism? One of the major reasons is that materialistic people tend to participate in activities like shopping, watching television and mindlessly surfing the Internet that do not give them much emotional, mental, or physical benefit. While buying a luxury item might give someone a short burst of joy or satisfaction, consumption does not make us happy for very long because, as we all know, there is always something new to buy—-something else that we just have to have. Not only do materialistic people engage in activities that do little for their well-being, but while they pursue these activities they ignore more important behaviours such as socializing with others, exercising, participating in community events, and just plain being active for the fun of it rather than to earn (or spend) a buck.

The trends speak for themselves: Canadians are working 30 minutes longer and spending 45 minutes less time with family on an average workday than they did 20 years ago. We are also increasingly eating alone, watching television alone, and spending less time preparing meals. In a 2006 study published in the Washington Post, it was found that a quarter of all Americans said that they have “no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles.” If the experts are correct and we require human contact to maintain our mental health, all of these trends suggest that we are moving in the wrong direction.

Not only does consumer culture encourage us to engage in activities contrary to our well-being and avoid other, more beneficial activities, but it also causes us a great deal of stress—-one of the key triggers of a depressive episode. Keeping up with the Joneses—-not to mention the Hiltons—-requires that people spend long hours at demanding and stressful jobs, skip holidays and needed sleep, and amass record amounts of debt in order to have the latest fashions. As well, the ideals that television and advertising present, in terms of aesthetics and emotional well-being, are so far beyond the means of average people that many end up feeling bad about themselves for not living up to those ideals—-but that does not stop them from trying. The result can be lowered self-esteem and a reduced sense of well-being.

While mental health professionals have traditionally looked at depression as a result of either genetic, biochemical, or environmental factors, some evolutionary theorists are now looking at depression in a much different light. Randolph Nesse of the University of Michigan has argued that, like pain, depression and depressive symptoms serve the adaptive function of stopping humans from engaging in activities that are harmful to them or of little benefit. In a 2000 article entitled “Is Depression an Adaptation?”, Nesse argued that “some negative and passive aspects of depression may be useful because they inhibit dangerous and wasteful actions in situations characterized by committed pursuit of an unreachable goal, temptations to challenge authority, insufficient internal reserves to allow action without damage, or lack of a viable life strategy.”

In a 2006 study with Matthew Keller, Nesse also found that certain negative situations aroused particular depressive symptoms. They found that people who were engaged in “failing efforts” were stricken with depressive symptoms such as “guilt, rumination, pessimism, and fatigue,” leading them to conclude that these reactions “may have been shaped by natural selection to minimize wasted effort and to re-assess failing strategies.”

The question needs to be asked, then: Are rates of depression rising because our bodies are reacting naturally to discourage us from engaging in a consumer culture that is not delivering on its promise? The research of Kasser and Schor, which shows that people highly involved in material culture are more prone to depression, along with that of evolutionary theorists like Nesse, suggests that this may indeed be the case. Instead of examining the effects of overconsumption and suburbia on our mental health, however, modern society has so far dealt with the depression epidemic by introducing another commodity: antidepressants. While antidepressants can be effective at treating the symptoms of the problem, they do nothing to address deeper factors influencing depression, such as diet, a lack of exercise, and stress. If depression is the body’s way of warning us to stop engaging in harmful behaviour, suppressing the symptoms with drugs only encourages us to ignore our built-in warning system, and ultimately, ignore the reasons why we are depressed in the first place.

Fortunately, the toll the consumerist lifestyle takes on our mental health and well-being need not be permanent. Stephen Ilardi, a University of Kansas psychologist, has shown that when people actually change their habits through a method he calls “therapeutic lifestyle change,” they have a better chance of treating their depression than those using medication and therapy. In a February 12, 2007, Los Angeles Times article, Ilardi argued that human beings were not designed “for our sedentary, socially isolated, indoor, sleep-deprived, frenzied, poorly nourished lifestyle”—-in short, the modern consumer world. His treatment method has people exercise more, sleep more, eat more Omega-3’s, and, finally, interact more with their fellow human beings. The results have been stunning: ‘in an on-going study of 79 patients, with two-thirds assigned to his therapy and the rest to a control group treated mainly with antidepressant medication or traditional psychotherapy, Ilardi reports a 74 percent favorable response, compared with 16 percent for the controls.” Just like a child learns to avoid or reduce pain by removing her finger from a candle flame, there is hope yet that we can turn the depression epidemic around by unplugging from the consumerist model and pursuing more fruitful ambitions.

Peter Dodson is a freelance writer and researcher who posts regularly to his blog at


Briarpatch remains independent because of your support. Subscribe today.