Home All Well-being and Materialism on a Seesaw (#CPPA2014)

Well-being and Materialism on a Seesaw (#CPPA2014)

written by Kathryn Britton 9 September 2014

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

One of the benefits of attending conferences is encountering people you already know and catching up on what they’ve been doing since you last saw them. Another benefit is meeting new people whose ideas and work were outside your knowledge space before, broadening your understanding of what’s included in the field.

In that respect, one of the great benefits of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association conference this summer was hearing Tim Kasser speak. Kasser is a professor at Knox College. He states on his web site, “My primary interest concerns people’s values and goals, and how they relate to quality of life. Over the last decade I have been especially focused on studying ‘materialistic values,’ i.e., being wealthy, having many possessions, being attractive, and being popular.” The slides for The Good life or the Goods life: Using the science of values to live well together are available for you to view if you want more after the taste I give below.

What’s the Goods Life?

What does he mean by the goods life? That’s the allure of materialism.

I once worked in an office where there was an ongoing tongue-in-cheek game called, “Whoever has the best toys wins.” At one time it was stereo equipment. At another, it was mountain bicycles. At another, it was fine wine and crystal to serve it in. Material goods were not just a way to gain pleasure. They were also a way to establish status in our little corner of the primate world.

Kasser showed some frightening examples of the extent of advertising for the goods life in our current society: people becoming product billboards with advertisements on their foreheads, advertising in school buses, Channel One TVs donated to schools with the proviso that children watch advertising during school hours along with educational programming.

The underlying messages of the goods life are:

  • People can purchase happiness.
  • It’s important to society that people work and consume.
  • Life is meaningful and people are successful to the point that they have money, possessions, and the right image.

What’s the Alternative?

Kasser made the point that materialism and well-being tend to be related to each other like two riders on a seesaw. When one goes up, the other goes down. As measures of well-being, he used some of the old favorites: low negative affect, high positive affect, and overall life satisfaction. He also used a number of other measures related to psychological health. In particular, he referenced the psychological needs described by Deci and Ryan and stated that “Materialistic values lead to choices and experiences that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs.”

Kasser showed a number of studies that indicated the seesaw nature of materialism and well-being. He also showed the relationship between materialism and ecological attitudes.

He characterized the good life as one where we live well together, using the definition of Deneulin and McGregor. Living well together can only occur when the characteristics, practices, or situations that promote happiness do not interfere with others’ opportunity to “live well,” where others include

  • Other living humans
  • Future generations of humans
  • Other species

A materialistic culture where people consume without consideration of the impact on the planet, on other life forms, or on future generations is not living well together.

When people have values that contribute to living well together, such as self-acceptance, affiliation, and community feeling, they tend to have more happiness, more life satisfaction, more vitality, less anxiety, and fewer physical symptoms. Society benefits because there is more cooperation, more empathy, more prosocial behavior, and less antisocial behavior.

“One of my main take-aways from the conference is that the more you focus on intrinsic values, the less you rely on extrinsic sources for your well-being. Community values drive out materialistic values.” ~ Andrew Soren, conference participant

Two Ways to Move Forward

One of the interesting ideas that comes out of the seesaw metaphor is that there are two ways to make progress:

  • Decrease materialism by limiting exposure to advertising and working on healthier attitudes toward money and possessions. Kasser has recently published a study that included interventions aimed at helping people differentiate between needs and wants, form a money plan, save and share, and explicitly use values to make financial decisions.
  • Increase well-being through interventions such as mindfulness practices, expressing gratitude, and reflecting on a person that accepts you.

Kasser described a number of studies that show that both approaches work. Raising well-being tends to lower materialism, and lowering materialism tends to raise well-being.

Policy Questions

Kasser argued that there actions that could be taken at the society level to take advantage of the seesaw and work toward greater well-being.

Twin Falls: Thinking about the environment in which we live

Twin Falls: Thinking about the environment in which we live

For example he argues that American policies that allow companies to write-off advertising as a business expense are detrimental to the overall well-being of the American public. Instead, we could have society-wide investment in protecting the environment and encouraging individuals to protect the environment by careful consuming.

Kasser showed some slides comparing the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), a measure that is designed to include environmental and social factors. The GPI shows little upward progress over the last 50 years, in contrast to the GDP. As he mentions in the Bellagio Initiative briefing paper, we could “develop alternative indicators of progress that de-privilege extrinsic/self-enhancement values and that include assessments of
intrinsic/self-transcendent values in their calculations.” He also argues in favor of increasing time affluence instead of financial affluence, since that gives people the wherewithal for self-transcendent behaviors, such as investing in their communities.

“What endears me further to the science of positive psychology and the people who embody it, is this attitude of abundance in regards to its application in practice, education, leadership, and research. For me this translates to endless access to information, openness and curiosity by others when you share your ideas and dreams, and trust in the level of inquiry. What a context for learning! I viewed the CPPA conference as an recipe to help us live well, as Tim Kasser put it, “with others, the environment, and for future generations.” What a legacy that would be!” ~ Cathy Parsons, conference participant




Brown, K. W. & Kasser, T. (2005). Are psychological and ecological well-being possible? The role of values, mindfulness, and lifestyle. Social Indicators Research, 74 (2): 349-368.

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. See the Basic Psychological Needs page of the Self-Determination Theory site for links to a number of papers about basic psychological needs.

Deneulin, S. & McGregor, J. A. (2010). The capability approach and the politics of a social conception of wellbeing. European Journal of Social Theory, 13(4): 501–519.

Hurst, M., Dittmar, H., Bond, R. & Kasser, T. (2013). The relationship between materialistic values and environmental attitudes and behaviors: A meta-analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36: 257–269. Abstract.

Kasser, T. (2003). The High Price of Materialism. Bradford Press.

Kasser, T. & Kanner, A. (2003). Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World. American Psychological Association.

Kasser, T. (2011). Cultural Values and the Well-Being of Future Generations: A Cross-National Study. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology 42: 206-215.

Kasser, T. (2011). Values and human well-being. The Bellagio Initiative, Briefing Summary.

Sheldon, K. M., Nichols, C. P., & Kasser, T. (2011). Americans recommend smaller ecological footprints when reminded of intrinsic American values of self-expression, family, and generosity. Ecopsychology 3: 97-104.

Sheldon, K. M., Gunz, A., Nichols, C. P., & Ferguson, Y. (2010). Extrinsic value orientation and affective forecasting: Overestimating the rewards, underestimating the costs. Journal of Personality, 78, 149-178.

Photo Credit:
Following two via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
I want, I want, I want courtesy of ATIS547
Kids playing on a seesaw courtesy of Dave ®

Playground map painting courtesy of John Oliver at BeMore Photograpy. My sister, Polly Heninger, was participating in a community project to paint a map of the USA on the blacktop outside Hampden Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore in May 2012. BeMore Photography is an example of a prosocial project. From their mission statement: “BeMore Photography helps non-profit organizations in the greater Baltimore-Washington area gain access to skilled photographers living in their community.” See their tagline: Give More. Do More. BeMore.

Twin Falls, near Twin Falls, Idaho courtesy of Kathryn Britton.

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MJ 10 September 2014 - 12:20 pm

Great article, Kathryn! I enjoyed thinking about many of the lines you wrote.

The main though that kept coming to mind is something my Pastor said in church not long ago: we used to use things, and love people. Now we tend to love things, and use people… Sad, but true!


Kathryn Britton 11 September 2014 - 4:59 pm

MJ, I wonder if that’s the case — or any more the case than it used to be. Interesting question.



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