Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



(Photo: szefei/Shutterstock)

Recipe for a Happy Life: Less Materialism, More Gratitude

• March 14, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: szefei/Shutterstock)

New research finds materialistic people are less happy in large part because of their lack of gratitude.

Picture the most materialistic people you know. They don’t seem very happy, do they? They certainly have more stuff than most of us, and we’re constantly bombarded with messages that equate stuff with bliss. So what’s missing from their lives?

Newly published research suggests a clear answer: Gratitude.

“High materialists are less happy in part because they find it harder to be grateful for what they have,” writes a research team led by Baylor University psychologist Jo-Ann Tsang. The researchers argue that, because of this low level of gratitude, “basic psychological needs (which allow) individuals to thrive” go largely unmet.

It only makes sense that “a materialistic outlook, which looks for satisfaction in what one does not have, would impair the ability to be grateful for what one has now.”

In the journal Personality and Individual Difference, Tsang and her colleagues describe a study in which 246 college students took a multifaceted survey. First, their level of materialism was measured by their response (on a scale of “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree’) to such statements as “My life would be better if I owned certain things I don’t have.”

Their dispositional gratitude and overall life satisfaction were determined by their reaction to two more sets of statements, such as “I have so much in life to be thankful for.”

In addition, the researchers measured the extent to which the participants’ basic psychological needs—specifically, relatedness, competence, and autonomy—were being met. Again using a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” the students responded to statements including “I felt a sense of contact with people who care for me, and whom I care for.”

“As in past research, we found that materialism was negatively associated with well-being,” the researchers write. Then, breaking new ground, they add that their results suggest one major reason for this is likely “the decreased gratitude that high materialists experience, and the resultant decreases in basic psychological needs.”

There are several theories regarding why materialistic people feel less gratitude. As the researchers note, it only makes sense that “a materialistic outlook, which looks for satisfaction in what one does not have, would impair the ability to be grateful for what one has now.”

Such people can get caught in a negative spiral in which they have unrealistic expectations of how happy material goods will make them. When their experience falls short of those expectations, their instinct is to seek out something new to purchase, putting them in an endless loop of anticipation and disappointment that does not leave room for gratitude.

And that, the researchers add, is a big loss. “Gratitude seems to confer robust benefits for well-being,” Tsang and her colleagues write. They argue that gratitude is very likely related to feelings of competence and autonomy, and is definitely related to a sense of social connectedness.

The research “suggests a number of potential intervention points for increasing life satisfaction in individuals who are high in materialism,” the most obvious one being encouraging feelings of gratitude, perhaps by keeping a “gratitude diary.”

But however one goes about it, the key seems to be a willingness and ability to shift one’s focus from fretting about what they desire “to savoring and appreciating what they do have.”

Or as Matthew McConaughey put it at during his recent acceptance speech at the Academy Awards, it is “a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.