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Prosperity isn't only material

Clearly, prosperity means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Our idea of what constitutes a ‘good’ life depends on the life we already lead, our beliefs, values, culture, and aspirations. One thing’s for sure though: prosperity isn’t only material. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than whether or not someone has a nice house and car.

Recently, economics has come to dominate our ideas of success. Too often, policymakers have only asked whether our economies are growing - not if they are providing good lives for people. As a result, the material elements of prosperity has been over-emphasized and prosperity has come to mean something far narrower than what it should mean. The assumption of politicians, policymakers, and leading economists has been that if the economy gets bigger, society will improve. But can we really measure prosperity in an exclusively material way?

Wellbeing research suggests that such an emphasis on the material elements of prosperity is a mistake. Although measuring what people want from life can be difficult, there’s a large body of research that shows that materialism does not lead to satisfaction. For example, in the UK, the percentage reporting themselves ‘very happy’ declined from 52% in 1957 to 36% in 2005, despite real income doubling in that period. In The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser and Helga Dittmar, they find that people with materialistic values are on average less happy than others. 1 There is a video explanation of this in the ‘See Also’ selection below.

There is a growing body of research that supports the suggestion that materialism does not lead to wellbeing. One study, which describes materialism as “a value system that is preoccupied with possessions and the social image they project”, that materialism “undermines personal and social well-being.” It also found that “situational cuing” could trigger “materialistic mindsets”. That means that being in a materialistic situation where one is treated as a consumer can cause people to be more materialistic.2

Another study suggests that materialism and loneliness are closely linked, often causing a vicious circle.3 Perhaps most significantly, a study examined the link between wellbeing and materialism across three different timeframes – 12 years, two years, and six months – and found that over time, materialistic people are less happy than those who place less importance on materialistic values and goals.4

Just to emphasise – this does not discount all material wealth as the basis for a good life, nor is it claiming that material things should play no role in providing a good life. A basic level of material consumption is needed to lead a dignified life. However, when materialism becomes a guiding principle, this rarely leads to a growth in wellbeing, and often leads to people being less happy. If this is the case, as so much evidence suggests, it shows the need to have a new conversation about prosperity.

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This article is from the free online course:

Global Prosperity Beyond GDP

UCL (University College London)