Over the past few decades, there have been several shifts in our society that have taken place that has not enhanced our quality of life.
For example, we use to just eat food, now we eat junk food.
Yes, it may taste good (with lots of hidden salt, sugars and fats) and tt may look good in the marketing ads- but it does not do us good.
Essentially it fails to give us what we need from food, nutrition. Instead, it fills us with toxins.
In the same way, our society has become more materialistic, telling us to spend our way to happiness.
Materialism is a like junk food, it looks attractive but in the end, it fails to give us what we really need, the nourishment of meaning and community.
Professor Richard M Ryan, a widely published researcher and theorist in human motivation and well-being with over 300 published empirical articles, chapters, and books research shows that the more materialistic we become, the more attached to possessions we are, the shorter our relationships are.
Materialism values appearance over substance. If we value people by how they look, the temptation is that we will be happy to dump them if someone hotter or more attractive comes along. Moreover, materialism teaches us to think almost solely in economic and monetary terms.
So volunteering, for example, is not appreciated because there is no financial reward at the end. Another side effect of materialism is we will tend to focus much more on what people think of us, for it is likely that our self-worth and self-esteem is contingent on how much money we have got, or what our clothes are like or how big our house is. Subtly materialism pushes you towards making external comparisons and robs us of a sense of contentment. So our society with its ‘spend more, own more’ mentality has a toxic effect on us, sometimes without us even knowing it.
Researchers asked the question ‘if you were deliberately trying to be happy, where would be the best place to live?’ The results were surprising. They discovered that the more materialistic a culture was, the less happy they would be. The USA, the most materialistic culture in the world, is nowhere near being the happiest place. Countries like Japan and Taiwan rated way above the US. As they drilled down on the research they found that another side effect of materialism is individualism.
In Asia, they mostly have a collective way of looking at life. In the West, we are too busy getting stuff for ourselves, racking up the achievement for ourselves and building up our own ego to grow a deep sense of others and community. The individualist vision of life encourages us to lock our doors and look after number one. Our western way has the mantra, “be yourself”, whereas other healthier cultures, suggest we, “be us”, “be we”, be part of a group, a community.
To be truly happy we need a growing sense of the “we”.
This brings me to the Amish, a Christian countercultural group that live in the USA. At first glance, this group seems totally out of touch with modern society. They don’t drive cars, they have no television or Internet, they dress in a nineteenth-century dress code and they have no consumer goods.
I could never be Amish.
Researchers have found, however, that they have extremely low levels of depression and very high levels of contentment. The Amish have a profound sense of belonging and meaning. They are big on community, strong on family life and have largely replaced materialism with a Christian sense of looking after one another and living simply and without competition. .
Don’t get me wrong, we don’t need to move to Asia or join the Amish.
But we do need to critique materialism and offer the Christian vision of life which is strong on community and on meaning.
The church can be a loving, nurturing community where people are valued not by their possessions or bank balance, but valued because we are all made in the image of God.
The Christian Church can offer what the Western world has almost lost, a deep sense of the “we”, and a healthy alternative to junk values.
We do have a future if we hold on to this vision.
Rev Steve Francis