The other day, a friend of mine was telling me about how he had given away a lot of his clothing in an attempt to not be defined by material things. That was unsettling to me. I thought about parting with my favorite winter coat or the boots that go with every outfit and I cringed.
I like material goods, and I know that I am not alone. From the new phones that are readily available to the style of jeans that are currently in vogue, the market is booming with new “stuff”. The media is screaming, “Out with the old, in with the new.”
When someone we know has the latest phone, the flashiest clothes and the most expensive car, they get attention. A phone from five years ago, plain clothes that are outdated and an affordable car — they aren’t a big deal. We place so much emphasis on the “haves” and “haves not.”
We are all guilty of this to some degree. We want people to notice what we have and we want to feel like we have something that stands out or that is worth talking about. We feel good about our goods!
Material goods are also seen as feel-good tools. After a break-up, a girl relies on retail therapy to get through her heartbreak. The new purchases somehow mend broken hearts and fill an empty void. She feels better once she has spent a lump sum of money to find temporary happiness.
According to the Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, our identity is often wrapped up in material goods. We buy glamorous clothing so we can feel more glamorous and confident. We buy the latest gadgets to make us happy. We are on a misguided search for identity and happiness through consumption. But how far is too far?
A little boy wakes up on Christmas morning and opens all of his presents. He got everything on his Christmas list, so now he loves his parents and is happy.
We live in a culture that tells us we can only be happy if we have “stuff.” If that little boy hadn’t gotten what was on his Christmas list, society says he would have a right to be upset. Why does money have to buy happiness? Why can’t this little boy be content knowing he has loving parents to celebrate Christmas with?
Of course it is hard to be happy and content despite what you have or don’t have, but if we let money purchase our smiles, we won’t have a sure foundation to ground our happiness on. Monetary things can satisfy us for a while but then stuff gets old and we feel empty again.
If we are tying up our happiness and identity in monetary items, aren’t we missing the bigger picture? What has happened to the true definitions of these terms?
Happiness should be laughing with your friends until your stomach hurts, or enjoying a delicious meal with your family. Identity should be knowing who you are despite what you have, and being defined by your characteristics and passions, not monetary items.
We all like stuff, and that is not a bad thing. I love the feeling of getting a new pair of boots or a really cute pair of earrings. However, it is what we allow that stuff to do for us that matters. If you can only feel attractive when you are wearing the latest and greatest clothing, you are missing the point.
If you can’t be happy until you get your dream car, I am afraid your material happiness won’t be substantial. When we can look past what someone is wearing, or what someone has, and see them for who they are, we have finally understood.
When we stop letting our stuff define us, we can realize who we are without it, and find happiness on a stronger foundation.
That foundation can be simply realizing what makes you uniquely you, or finding joy in sharing yourself with others. Whatever it is, money can’t buy it and it’s strong to build on.
By Remi Omodara