10 Ways to Combat Holiday Materialism

Last week I was driving my seven-year-old daughter to dance class when she spotted Christmas decorations on a store front. She said. “Mom ,what do you think I should ask Santa for?”
“I’m not sure, is there something you want?” I replied.
She paused and said, “My life is perfect mom. I don’t want or need anything. I have a perfect family, perfect friends, perfect teachers and school, I have love, I have food and a home, I don’t need anything more.”

Tears welled in my eyes; she gets it.

At seven, she knows, the important aspects of life can’t be purchased or wrapped in a nice package. The gifts in life are stability, health, family, friends, access to education, food, shelter and feeling safe.

In that moment, my daughter reminded me the holiday season is less about what we get and more about appreciating what we do have and spending time with friends and family.

Which led me to think about where do we get the messages that this time of year is about getting and giving more and more material items? Many sources I’m sure, including tradition (this is always what our family has done), routine (never occurred to do something different) and the largest influence: media and marketing.

On the American Psychological Association (APA) website, there was an article that caught my eye on just this topic: materialism and the holidays. Materialism expert, I never knew there was such a title, but there is, researcher, Dr. Tim Kasser.

Dr. Kasser defines materialism as, “having values that put a relatively high priority on making a lot of money and having many possessions, as well as on image and popularity, which are almost always expressed via money and possessions.” He further elaborates, “We know from research that materialism tends to be associated with treating others in more competitive, manipulative and selfish ways, as well as with being less empathetic. Such behavior is usually not appreciated by the average person, although it is encouraged by some aspects of our capitalist economic system.”

According to Dr. Kasser there are two paths that can lead people to develop materialistic values:

  1. People are more materialistic when exposed to messages that suggest such pursuits are important, whether through their parents and friends, society, or the media.
  2. And, people are more materialistic when they feel insecure or threatened, whether because of rejection, economic fears or thoughts of their death.

It’s no surprise the impact of media on materialism. As noted by Dr. Kasser, “the more that people watch television, the more materialistic their values are.” He notes, “That’s probably because both the shows and the ads send messages suggesting that happy, successful people are wealthy, have nice things, and are beautiful and popular.”

But it’s not just watching television that increases materialistic values. According to research findings from Dr. Kasser, the influences of social media, where advertisements abound, also impact our perceptions and desires for wanting more material items. In one study, research on social media use within American and Arab youth showed higher rates of materialism as social media use increases.

According to Dr. Kasser’s research on materialism:

  • The more television or social media use increased higher rates of materialism.
  • The more people reported having materialistic values, the more they experienced depression, anxiety and had an increase of physical health problems (headaches and stomach-ache) and experience less pleasant emotions (joy, happiness, calm).
  • There is a negative relationship between materialism and well-being; especially for those who are religious. It is difficult to balance materialistic goals with religious pursuits. Trying to pursue materialistic and spiritual goals increases conflict and stress, thereby reducing overall well-being.
  • People reported feeling less satisfied with their lives the higher their materialistic values.

Hardly am I encouraging a giftless holiday. Instead, I’m encouraging a mindful holiday season, where we can stay grounded and not get swept away with the bombardment of materialism this holiday.

Here are some suggestions on how to manage materialism during the holidays:

  1. Set Your Intention. Spend time thinking about what you want the holiday to be for you and your family. If you want calm and enjoyable moments bonding with family and friends, then ask yourself, how do my goals for the holiday match my current attitude and behavior? If you are rushing from one store to the next or stressing about the “right” picture for the holiday card, then you maybe too focused on the material pressures surrounding the holiday season.
  2. Let go of Should. This is a repeating theme in my writing; let go of “should.” When you find yourself saying, “I should be…” or, ” I should have…” you are not coming from a place of authentic intention, rather an obligation or belief that has been imposed on you or that you believe to be true.
  3. Be Mindful Not to Get Pulled into the Frenzy of Buying. Consider the research on materialism listed above. The more one watches television or uses social media, the higher the influence of materialistic values. Set a budget, make a list, and be aware of how what you see on the screen influences your thoughts, feelings and behaviors during the holiday season.
  4. Be O.k. With Breaking Traditions. Just because your family have traditions every year, doesn’t mean you can’t alter, let go of, or create new traditions. Be o.k. with making choices in line with your personal values and goals. I have worked with many families who can’t afford gift giving in general and especially for extended family, opting instead for homemade gifts or spending time with one another.
  5. Spend Time with Loved Ones. I can tell you this; I hear over and over in the therapy room how people didn’t want things when they were growing up, they wanted more quality time with parents, family, and friends. The gift of time and shared experiences are far more valuable than any possession.
  6. Think of the Receiver of the Gift. Often we purchase gifts we think someone wants, or we purchase an item out of obligation or impulse because of stress and time constraints. Before you shop, ask yourself this: What does my child really want? What does my partner truly need? What does my family really want as a gift?
  7. Give to Others in Need. This time of year there is no shortage of those in need. There are numerous places to donate your time or resources or gifts. Giving to others, especially to those in need, can increase meaning and purpose during the holiday season.
  8. Don’t Get Caught Up in Volume. It can be tempting to want to give tons of gifts for family and friends. But often less, is more. Too often children can’t focus on what to play or value when there is a mountain of toys. I saw last year on a blog the concept of giving four gifts: a need, a want, something to wear, and something to read. I love this concept because it forces thoughtfulness, intention and teaches a lovely message.
  9. Remember to Be Grateful. Research studies have shown, the way to increase happiness is to intentionally practice gratitude. Simply taking a few minutes a week to reflect upon the small and large things to be grateful for can promote happiness, peace and purpose. If you want to read more about happiness and gratitude please read this post: Want to Be Happy? Start with Gratitude. 
  10. Write a Card of Appreciation. Our culture is one that is fast paced, hectic, and short on time. It can be common to text rather than make a phone call, and the art of letter writing is quickly fading. Taking the time to write a note or thoughtful card to friends and family can have far greater meaning than any gift purchased.

© Copyright Dr. Claire Nicogossian 2015

Credit for information on materialism research and interview: American Psychological Association 2014,  www.APA.org. If you would like to read the full interview with Dr. Tim Kasser, please go here, to the APA’s website.

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