“Materialistic people are also the least satisfied”

Economist and author Brett Graff argues that we should give our kids stories, not stuff
“Materialistic people are also the least satisfied”

Wendy Fox

If your kids are like most — in the sense that they were born with human brains — then they’re probably already tired of the gazillion dollars’ worth of stuff you’ve bought for them over the years. Don’t blame the little ingrates. This is a species-wide problem in that we all tire of retail bounty quite quickly.

Psychologists know why material goods fail to bring us happiness; it’s because the human brain is built to adapt to its surroundings. It’s the reason people who live near railroad tracks don’t notice the rattle of the trains. It’s why some of us can cope with great tragedy and go on to experience joy. And it’s why our kids so quickly grow bored with gifts. No matter how many weeks they spent wishing for those gaming devices, skateboards or sneakers, the items get boring when their brains adapt to owning them. That’s when they set out to begin their next retail conquest.

Evidence suggests that it’s us, their parents, who are responsible for teaching kids that more is better. And acquisitive children tend to grow up to be acquisitive adults, so the cycle continues. Psychologists, meanwhile, have long established that materialistic people are more anxious, more depressed, and more likely to use drugs and alcohol. People who agree with the statement, “Some of the most important achievements in life include acquiring material possessions,” are also the least satisfied with life.

Of course, we don’t want to deprive our kids of those games and sneakers — the things they might want but not necessarily need. The question is, how do we raise them to appreciate the gifts they get while keeping them from becoming overly concerned with acquisitions?

The first thing to remember is that our kids are usually better off doing things rather than owning them. Eating ice cream, traveling and social occasions can bring deep satisfaction over time, long after they occur, says Leaf Van Boven, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, who has studied the psychological effects of purchasing. Experiences are fun while we’re enjoying them, of course. But afterward, our minds have a way of refining memories so they even get better with age. When the day is over and the kids are discussing the things they did with their friends, the highlights are reinforced and any hassles are pushed to the back of their brains, where they’ll soon be forgotten.

Experiences also make our kids more interesting, which enhances their social lives. Van Boven says that the greatest predictor of human happiness is the quantity and quality of our social relationships. He paired up students and randomly assigned each to speak either about an experience that made them happy or a material good that brought them joy. Those who spoke about experiences were better liked by their partners. Stories are gifts that cannot be seen or touched, but can be felt for a lifetime.