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.”