In Summary

  • Analysis for The Drum, by Dr Brad Elphinstone, lecturer in Psychology at Swinburne University of Technology

Christmas. It's the season that's starting earlier every year, if the appearance of decorations and displays at shopping centres is anything to go by.

It's also a time of year where the focus seems to shift more towards materialism and over-consumption rather than the "true" spirit and values of Christmas.

Regardless of whether you're religious or not (for the sake of transparency, I'm not), it's worth considering the story of Christ. When approached by a wealthy man who wanted to know how he could ensure entrance into Heaven, Jesus suggested he could attain "perfection" by giving away his wealth and possessions to those in greater need (Matthew 19:21). Similar values have also been articulated in other major religions and spiritual belief systems.

In a similar vein, dozens of psychological studies over the last 25 years in multiple countries, including Australia, have consistently indicated that greater materialism is associated with reduced psychological wellbeing and increased psychopathology.

Materialism has been considered to comprise two parts: materialistic goals, and beliefs about material objects.

In relation to goals, this means desiring to have an appealing image, being popular and well-known, and financially successful above other things, such as wanting to help others or develop truly meaningful relationships.

The second component includes the belief that material possessions indicate how successful someone is in life, and that the acquisition and ownership of material possessions can make someone happier. It also relates to the centrality of material possessions in one's life.

However, research has also shown that experiential buying is associated with higher levels of wellbeing. That is, spending money on experiences rather than buying things to project a positive image and "keep up with the Joneses" appears to have better outcomes.

For example, spending money on music lessons promotes wellbeing by providing the opportunity to develop new skills and a sense of competence. Spending money on going to a restaurant with friends or familypromotes wellbeing through providing the opportunity to strengthen existing relationships and to bond with others. Spending money on holidays can provide positive experiences and memories that last a lifetime.

So, this Christmas, take some time to consider your purchases. If you're buying for someone else, rather than a meaningless "stocking stuffer", put money towards something you know will give that person a positive experience, or offer to take them out for a meal instead.

If you're hanging out for the Boxing Day sales, think about why you want to buy certain things. Do you really need that new smartphone (which you might, as it provides the utility and experience of communicating with others), or are you primarily lusting after it for materialistic reasons, such as wanting to impress others? If it's the latter, research suggests you'll be happier if you spend your money in other ways.

Alternatively, perhaps you've still got money burning a hole in your pocket but there aren't any experiences you're after and you don't want to engage in materialistic consumption. In that case, research has also found that intrinsic aspirations such as trying to improve your community are associated with greater wellbeing. So, consider donating money to a charity that you think is worthwhile.

The materialism and over-consumption associated with Christmas aren't going away anytime soon. But, by reconsidering some of our purchases, we can still engage in the spirit of giving this Christmas whilst increasing the chances of making ourselves and others happier.

Written by Dr Brad Elphinstone, lecturer in psychology at Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Drum. Read the original article