The twenty-first century is, inarguably, the era of abundance. An abundance of consumer goods, accessible information, and digital products, which we largely owe to globalization. While the plentifulness of technologies, diverse foods, clothing, and beauty products may have made our lives more enjoyable, free, and with greater access to opportunities, ‘excessive’ consumerism does have its downfalls: a correlation of the rise of consumerism and the decline of mental health has been observed. This article aims at sharing some research on ways in which excessive consumerism may harm our mental health.
One of the negative effects associated with excessive consumerism is a rise in materialistic values. Materialism involves a preoccupation with the purchase of physical goods, and materialistic individuals, oftentimes, rely on these consumer goods as their sole source of happiness and “dominant mode of motivation.” (Mitch Medical) In today’s era, it is extraordinarily easy to get caught up in the ocean of accessible consumer goods - from beauty products and technology, to fast fashion and digital products - and as a result, becoming reliant on them to achieve joy and happiness. It is true that purchasing new goods and receiving gifts increases satisfaction, but it tends to do so temporarily; if an individual relies on this short-term satisfaction and joy as a result of an acquisition of new material goods - without paying attention to the psychological and / or spiritual causes of their low mood - they may grow to be excessively ‘dependent’ on physical goods in order to feel happiness, and, as a result, develop materialistic tendencies. According to the American Psychological Association, materialistic values are associated with an overall “lower life satisfaction.” (DeAngelis 2004) Jo-Ann Tsang, associate professor of neuroscience and psychology at Baylor University (Texas, USA), believes that this occurs due to an increase in self-centred behaviour as a result of materialism. This “me-centered” psychological state leads an individual to pay too much attention to what they do not have - constantly striving to own more and more consumer goods - and as a result, being unable to feel gratitude for what they do have. According to Tsang, gratitude is a positive feeling that is directed towards other people, and since materialism correlates with increased self-centred and self-reliant behaviour, materialistic people simply find it difficult to experience genuine and sincere gratitude, and therefore, may be unable to truly feel positive and happy. According to a study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, materialistic individuals indeed find it more difficult to feel grateful for what they already own, thus underscoring their negative emotions. (Whiteman 2014) Additionally, materialistic “tendencies” have also been associated with decreased “social cooperation,” an increase in depression, antisocial behaviour, and anxiety (Twenge 2013).
Physical goods are not the only type of goods that we regularly consume. The rise of digital marketing and social media prompted a new wave of products that only exist within the digital realm but play an equally significant (or, perhaps, even a more significant) role in our consumer behaviour - apps, social media accounts, and online stores are examples of “digital consumerism" aided by the Internet. But to access this digital realm of consumer goods in the first place, we must have the necessary technological devices - computers, smartphones, and tablets - meaning, that our consumerism of technology parallels that of consumerism of digital goods. While technology use, has inarguably, improved our lives and connected the world, excessive smartphone use, for example, has been associated with an increase in dopamine levels in the brain. According to an article published by the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, “smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimulus.” And positive social stimuli have the potential to increase the level of dopamine in the brain. (Haynes 2018) Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that allows us to feel rewarded and experience positive emotions and pleasure, and it needs to be produced in healthy amounts. However, when one spends excessive amounts of time using technologies - smartphones, tablets, laptops - during which they consume digital products, such as social media accounts, scroll through e-commerce websites, or watch product review videos, the brain becomes exposed to an overwhelming amount of stimulus - an ocean of goods and services that we may not be able to access at such large quantities in real life. Think of it this way:
how many pieces of clothing can you, on average, view at a real-life store? Now compare that approximate amount to the number of items you scroll through and view every minute while using an e-commerce website on your gadget; the latter amount is most likely much higher than the former. Technologies have indeed enabled us to access abundant amounts of products and services, more than we can view in real life, and this may create a psychological sense of ‘overwhelm’ because you are not able to keep track and ‘digest’ all of the new information that is constantly being perceived by your brain. This may increase dopamine levels more than needed, and, as a result, may potentially lead to an increase in aggressive behaviour, poor impulse control, binge-eating, gambling, and even addiction. (Healthdirect) I have personality experienced similar effects; earlier this year, overwhelmed with work and long todo-lists, I ended up using my phone for prolonged amounts of time. While my work involves communicating with people and using software, I admit that I spent more time than I actually needed on my phone; subsequently, I noticed that my overall mood decreased, as well as self-control. I also became more easily irritated by small details and the normally calm and peaceful me turned into an anxious person who constantly felt like being “on edge.” On edge of losing control over my actions, unable to concentrate and do any work without checking my phone, which I felt the urge to do again and again, even if there is no pressing necessity to do so - no new messages, no more work, no more to-do lists. At one point, I couldn’t even have a proper meal without feeling the urge to open my phone and use it while eating; I could hardly control myself and eventually realised that I, in a way, became ‘addicted’ to this never-ending flow of easy information that the digital world was providing me with. E-commerce stores, images, music, videos, product reviews, and other goods are just a few finger taps away, likely ‘overloading’ the brain with dopamine, which may result in the negative effects mentioned above.
Social media is another good that we, oftentimes, consume ‘excessively.’ Social media, despite not being a consumer product in itself, can be referred to separate good and service because it enables us to interact with a seemingly infinite number of firms, brands, stores, and services. By
‘consuming’ social media, we are ‘consuming’ not only the brand and firms that it enables access to but also accounts of individuals and images of celebrities. It is no secret that social media, oftentimes, idealizes the human image and the excessive viewing of photoshopped photographs of people may lead to decreases in self-esteem as a result of comparing oneself with others.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to these potential harms of social media, which has been found to be associated with depression. (Vidal 2020) Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, believes that the rise of social media and smartphone use may very well be one of the causes behind the sharp rise of depression, as well as suicide, among teens and young adults. (Neighmond 2019)
Despite living in the age of material abundance with plenty of available goods and services to be consumed, it is not necessarily making us happier and does not necessarily increase our life satisfaction. Objectively, today’s younger generations live a more affluent life as compared to that of their grandparents; mundane things today - such as refrigerators, snacks, diverse clothing designs, and automobiles - were largely considered luxuries in our great-grandparents’ times and we generally have a lot more available goods and services now. According to psychologist David G, Myers, Ph.D., of Hope College, “today’s young adults have grown up with more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology.” (Myers)
While it is very well possible that excessive consumerism may harm our mental health, the good news is that we actually have control over our behaviours. Knowledge is power; being aware of the cause-and-effect relationship of excessive consumerism and mental health is the first step to making positive changes in our lives. Consumerism by itself is not harmful and in fact, it is absolutely necessary in order to lead a happy and healthy life; we need to consume good and services in order to live and thrive. Therefore, the central message that I would like to convey in this article is that being a mindful consumer is key. It does not mean that we should refrain from purchasing material
things that will make us happier; instead, it is crucial to be mindful about what we consume to avoid doing so excessively. Not only will your physical and mental health thank you, but your wallet, too!
Stay positive and healthy!
DeANGELIS, TORI. “Consumerism--Consumerism and Its Discontents.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, June 2004, https:// www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/discontents#.
“Dopamine.” Healthdirect, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/dopamine.
Haynes, Trevor. “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle for Your Time.” Science in the News, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1 May 2018, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones- battle-time/.
Mitch, Wilbur. “Psychological Effects of Materialism - Mental Health.” Mitch Medical Healthcare, 13 Aug. 2021, https://www.mitchmedical.us/mental- health-2/psychological-effects-of-materialism.html.
Neighmond, Patti. “A Rise in Depression among Teens and Young Adults Could Be Linked to Social Media Use.” NPR, NPR, 14 Mar. 2019, https://www.npr.org/ sections/health-shots/2019/03/14/703170892/a-rise-in-depression-among- teens-and-young-adults-could-be-linked-to-social-medi?t=1639443418373.
Twenge JM & Kasser (2013) Generational changes in materialism and work centrality, 1976-2007: Associations with temporal changes in societal insecurity and materialistic role modeling. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2013; 39(7):883-897
Vidal, Carol, et al. “Social Media Use and Depression in Adolescents: A Scoping Review.” International Review of Psychiatry (Abingdon, England), U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/ PMC7392374/.
Whiteman, Honor. “Materialistic People 'More Likely to Be Depressed and Unsatisfied'.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 5 Apr. 2014, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275044.
About the author:
I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!