By Christine Carter, , Ph.D.
Last year about this time, an Instagram photo showing a mountain of shiny wrapped presents – nearly as large as the seven-foot Christmas tree behind it – went viral. I love Hanukkah and Christmas (we celebrate both in our family); at the same time, all the gift-buying and present bragging is cause for worry.
Kids who grow up to pursue wealth and material possessions tend to be less satisfied with their lives. They are not as happy, and they experience fewer positive emotions each day. Research finds materialism in students is also associated with lower-quality relationships and feeling less connected to other people.
Two things tend to influence how materialistic kids are.
The first is obvious: Consciously or not, we adults socialize kids to be materialistic. When parents – as well as peers and celebrities – model materialism, kids care more about wealth and luxury. So when parents are materialistic, kids are likely to follow suit. The same goes for advertising: The more exposure kids get to advertising, the more likely they are to be materialistic. Materialism is worth combating, especially over the holidays.
The less obvious factor behind materialism has to do with the degree to which we fulfill our needs. When people feel insecure or unfulfilled – because of poverty or because a basic psychological need like safety, competence, connectedness, or autonomy is not being met – they often to try to quell their insecurity by striving for wealth and a lot of fancy stuff. Because of this, relatively poor teenagers ironically tend to be more materialistic than wealthy ones. Less nurturing and more emotionally cold mothers tend to have more materialistic children.
So materialism and the behaviors that go with it – desiring and buying brand name clothes and luxury items – can be symptoms of insecurity and a coping strategy used to alleviate feelings of self-doubt or bolster a poor self-image. If what kids are really seeking is greater happiness and fulfillment, materialism is a terrible coping method. At best, it will only provide short-term relief; in the long-run, it is likely to deepen feelings of insecurity.
Materialism is worth combating, especially over the holidays when it seems to reach a fever pitch in our culture. I think A great way to combat materialism over the holidays is to prioritize connection with friends, family, and neighbors. My teens would rather be with their friends than anyone else most of the time, but this is the time of the year when we insist on family first.
For example, the weekend before Christmas, my cousins always fly in from Massachusetts and Washington and Florida for a big extended family Christmas party, complete with a funny “Yankee Swap” (aka “white elephant” gift exchange). My mom makes spritz cookies with the kids- a tradition started in Germany with her mother. We light the candles of the menorah and say prayers each night during Hanukkah, something my husband’s Jewish family has been teaching us.
All of this is about renewing our sense that we are a part of something larger than ourselves. Let me not mince words here: This sense that we are connected and part of a larger whole is the single strongest predictor of happiness that we have. It is true, the holidays have become depressingly commercial in our culture, with a massive focus on what each individual will get and what kids want in terms of material gifts.
Let’s choose to focus on relationships instead of individual gift lists this holiday season. Not surprisingly, people who focus on family or religion during the holidays report higher levels of happiness than those who do not.