In January 1848, James Marshall was building a sawmill by a river near present day Sacramento when he found a piece of glowing metal on the floor, which turned out to be gold. Within a few weeks, once rumours of the discovery had spread, tens of thousands of people were flocking to the area, struck by 'gold fever.' Ships were abandoned all over the California coast, businesses closed down, and whole towns became deserted. In a little over a year, San Francisco grew from shanty town of 79 buildings to a city of tens of thousands. Over the next few years, at least 300,000 gold seekers came to California,
This shows that the materialistic madness which has accompanied 'Black Friday' - arrests and injuries, scuffles and stand offs between customisers and shop workers - is nothing new. Our attraction to valuable material goods seems to be deep-rooted, and even instinctive. In some ways the gold diggers' rampant materialism was understandable, since they were living at a time of great poverty, and for many of them gold digging seemed to offer an escape from starvation. Our insatiable materialism seems more insane, since it's mostly directed at goods which aren't necessary for our survival, which we could easily live without. Our appetite for material goods isn't driven by hardship, but by our own inner discontent.
This would be more forgivable if there was evidence that material goods and wealth do lead to happiness. But all the evidence fails to show this. Study after study by psychologists has shown that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The only exception is in cases of real poverty, when extra income does relieve suffering and brings security. But once our basic material needs are satisfied, our level of income makes little difference to our level of happiness. Research has shown, for example, that extremely rich people such as billionaires are not significantly happier than people with an average income, and suffer from higher levels of depression. Researchers conclude that true well-being does not come from wealth but from other factors such as good relationships, meaningful and challenging jobs or hobbies, and a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves.
Explanations for Materialism
Many economists and politicians believe that acquisitiveness - the impulse to buy and possess things - is natural to human beings. This seems to make sense in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution: since natural resources are limited, human beings have to compete over them, and try to claim as large a part of them as possible.
One of the problems with this theory is that there is actually nothing 'natural' about the desire to accumulate wealth. In fact, this desire would have been disastrous for earlier human beings. For the vast majority of our time on this planet, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers - small tribes who would usually move to a different site every few months. As we can see from modern hunter-gatherers, this way of life has to be non-materialistic, because people can't afford to be weighed down with unnecessary goods. Since they moved every few months, unnecessary goods would simply be a hindrance to them, making it more difficult for them to move.
In my view, acquisitiveness is best understood in psychological terms. Our mad materialism is partly a reaction to inner discontent. As human beings' it's normal for us to experience an underlying 'psychological discord', caused by the incessant chattering of our minds, which creates a disturbance inside us, and often triggers negative thoughts.
We look to external things to try to alleviate our inner discontent. Materialism certainly can give us a kind of happiness - the temporary thrill of buying something new, and the ego-inflating thrill of owning it afterwards. And we use this kind of happiness to try to override - or compensate for - the fundamental unhappiness inside us.
It doesn't work, of course - or at least, it only works for a very short time. The happiness of buying or owning a new item rarely lasts longer than a couple of days. The sense of ego-inflation generated by wealth or expensive possessions can be more enduring, but it's very fragile too. It depends on comparing yourself to other people who aren't as well off as you, and evaporates if you compare yourself to someone who is wealthier than you. And no matter how much we try to complete or bolster our ego, our inner discontent and incompleteness always re-emerges, generating new desires. No matter how much we get, it's never enough. The satisfaction of one desire just creates new desires, like a cell multiplying.
Steve Taylor, Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity:Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. www.stevenmtaylor.com