On the biggest shopping weekend of the year, many of us are beset by a dilemma: what to buy for the person who has everything. It makes me think of the teenager I heard about in my psychotherapy office, who opened a gift from his 90-year-old great-aunt, tossed it aside and said, "I already have that."
Many of us already "have that." We have become, to borrow a phrase President Bush used while addressing his donors, "the haves and the have mores." That explains why some of us are left feeling spiritually empty during this season of feasting and giving.
Consuming passion: Customers flood Macy's department store in New York on Friday, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season.
(Shannon Stapleton -- Reuters)
There have always been the few who live lavishly, with estates, servants and multiple homes, just as there have always been some who struggle to get by with very little. But having a lot is no longer the province of the few. Acquisition -- and its close companion, acquisition envy -- is a problem not just for the elite but also for the average person. I see the impact day after day among the people who come to my office for counseling. Relationships among family members and between friends are suffering. We've become materially richer but interpersonally poorer.
My colleagues and I talk about the repetitive patterns of acquisitive behavior we observe on a daily basis. We see high school girls carrying Prada bags that are not knockoffs and competing with one another through their apparel. We hear from adolescents who get caught shoplifting and others who get away with it (and these are kids who have disposable money and don't need new clothes). We listen to adults describing patterns of what I call "comfort shopping" -- buying clothes they don't need and never wear and that sit in their closets with the tags on. We hear from single people whose spending habits put them so deeply into credit card debt that they end up declaring bankruptcy. Members of one family told me that they can identify at least three successive generations of compulsive shoppers and still find it hard to resist the siren song of the mall.
There's a change I've witnessed in the 20-plus years I've been in practice. People used to buy things when they needed them; now they buy things when they want them or want their children to have them. Adolescents in the past were rarely presented with new cars on their 16th birthdays, but it's not uncommon today. Kids used to buy cars when they could afford them -- usually of the beat-up, secondhand variety. Now, at a time in their lives when they are both vulnerable and easily influenced, teenagers find themselves behind the wheels of powerful, expensive machines, ill-prepared to handle the repercussions of a fender bender, much less a serious accident.
If there were evidence that increasing affluence made people happier, there might be occasion to rejoice. Even though GDP per capita has tripled since World II, and houses have grown bigger, cars more luxurious, clothing and food easier to afford, we seem to be working mindlessly to acquire more. In fact, there is ample evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that once people attain a reasonably good standard of living, making more money and buying more has no appreciable positive effect and in some cases has negative effects.
The biggest cost I see is intergenerational. Materialism is taking a drastic toll at home. There is considerable strain involved in generating the money needed to acquire so much. Many of the parents who come to my office describe living on the earn-and-spend, earn-and-spend treadmill that Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes. Parents are exhausted. Children are neglected. Marriages get put on hold. One professional woman reported to me that she felt so overwhelmed that she came home one evening and started breaking plates on the floor in front of her three little kids. Stories like this make me realize we are allowing ourselves to be robbed of what is most precious and counts the most: free time.
Some families manage to survive the grueling parental work schedules needed to maintain or increase the standard of living. Others succumb. Sometimes the marriage is the casualty; sometimes it's a child; sometimes both. I can remember a former competitive swimmer who applied her all-training-all-the-time approach to her business. She seemed to be addicted to relentless activity and the accoutrements it would then allow her to buy. Her husband told her he'd leave her if she didn't spend more time at home. She didn't -- and he did. The big house they had been able to buy simply didn't make up for her absence.
One sad story I've seen in countless variations goes like this: A father puts in punishing hours at the job, believing he is doing the best for his family. The children, who rarely saw their busy father when they were young, see him even less as they grow up surrounded by toys, and the marriage falters and dissolves. The dad feels misunderstood when the children come up with excuses not to see him. One father told me indignantly that he now felt like a money machine; in reality, it was just the old pattern continuing.
The desire for the material and social status that comes with successful careers leads to one of the worst situations therapists encounter -- that of a child with two parents, neither of whom has time for him or her. I can remember a boy who spent far more time with the nanny and gardener (who didn't speak English) than with his high-powered mother and father. They spoke glowingly of their jobs and extensive travel and social life and second home, but neither was willing to change their acquisitive lifestyle for a simpler life with their child, who was exhibiting serious symptoms as a little boy. A young adult patient I saw with a similar history described this kind of parent as MIA, or missing in action.
More young people are questioning their parents' way of life. I can think of one patient raised in Chevy Chase whose father wanted him to follow in his footsteps, assuming that he would continue the family's upward mobility. The son told me that, after some thought, he realized it wasn't for him. He felt that the lifestyle hadn't even been particularly satisfying for his father. Instead, he has become a self-employed carpenter and lives on a houseboat. (In an act of reverse materialism, he recently sold the family antiques to a dealer, because he'll never need them.)
It defies common sense to assume that each generation will be able to have more than the last. At some point, the trajectory will inevitably change. One of my girlfriends leaned over to me when we were having dinner recently and said, "I'm afraid that my kids think I'm cheap." I called her the next day and told her that, actually, I think they're lucky. They have a mom who has helped prepare them for a future in which their fortunes (and that of their nation) may rise or fall. Thriftiness has survival value.
The biggest price being paid for rampant materialism may be within families, but I am also struck by the competitive edge this preoccupation lends to relationships between contemporaries. Items take on enormous symbolic importance. Of course it happens to people of all ages (everyone knows a man who covets another's sports car or a woman who wants her neighbor's granite countertops), but children and teenagers are the most vulnerable.
I am seeing a new level of competitiveness, not just on the athletic fields and in the classroom but increasingly over possessions. I think of it as the Keds-to-Nike transformation. One status-conscious teenage girl (whose parents checked out my diplomas before they even sat down) said she couldn't understand why she had trouble making and keeping friends. This girl had learned much more about domination than cooperation, and she formed alliances to get what she wanted rather than making real friends.
The scientific literature supports my office observations. A comprehensive review of more than 150 studies on happiness and wealth by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman showed that there has been no appreciable rise in life satisfaction over the past decades, despite our increased material wealth.
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation issued a report that is sure to give ambitious and acquisitive parents pause. It found an inverse relationship between self-reported child happiness and parental income. Blue-collar and middle-class kids identified themselves as happier than wealthy ones. Kids need their parents on site -- in the foreground when they are young, and in the background as they get older. That's simply not possible in many of today's go-getter households.
So here we are: a generation of fashionistas and Samurai shoppers with full closets and empty hearts. Instead of listening to our souls, we have fallen for a new field of retail anthropology that advises businesses on how to get people in the mood to buy, buy, buy. I saw a catchy phrase that headlined an article in this newspaper's business section several months ago: Appliance Lust. It referred to hunger for eight-burner Viking ranges, built-in woks and Sub-Zero refrigerators with custom wood paneling and door alarms. Those of us who lived through the '60s seem to have forgotten the warning that everything you buy owns you.
In our increasingly materialistic culture, needs and wants have become one and the same. When I see people in my office who are struggling to figure out what is most important to them, I often ask them to imagine being on their deathbed, looking back over their lives. What will they rejoice in? What will fall in the neutral category? And what will they regret? Does all this stuff make people more contented with their lives? Apparently not. And after all, as the saying goes, you can't take it with you.
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Patricia Dalton is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington.