The High Price of Materialism

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In The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser offers a scientific explanation of how our contemporary culture of consumerism and materialism affects our everyday happiness and psychological health. Other writers have shown that once we have sufficient food, shelter, and clothing, further material gains do little to improve our well-being. Kasser goes beyond these findings to investigate how people's materialistic desires relate to their well-being. He shows that people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety,depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy — regardless of age,income, or culture.

Drawing on a decade's worth of empirical data,Kasser examines what happens when we organize our lives around materialistic pursuits. He looks at the effects on our internal experience and interpersonal relationships, as well as on our communities and the world at large. He shows that materialistic values actually undermine our well-being, as they perpetuate feelings of insecurity, weaken the ties that bind us, and make us feel less free. Kasser not only defines the problem but proposes ways we can change ourselves, our families,and society to become less materialistic.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
You've always known that money can't buy happiness, but do you have the data to prove it? Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, certainly does. Drawing on an impressive range of statistical studies, including ones that use his own "Aspiration Index," Kasser argues that a materialistic orientation toward the world contributes to low self-esteem, depression, antisocial behavior and even a greater tendency to get "headaches, backaches, sore muscles, and sore throats." In numerous studies, Kasser shows, people who were paid for completing a task that they normally found pleasurable (e.g., solving puzzles) reported the activity to be less fun than those who did the task without financial compensation. While at first the book seems to retrace the steps of Juliet B. Schor's The Overspent American and other recent titles that analyze why many Americans feel driven and unhappy despite success, Kasser goes beyond this, showing how materialistic values shape an individual's orientation toward friends, family, work, death and "internal satisfactions." Of great interest are the studies demonstrating that children of divorce and people with "less nurturing" mothers are more likely to hold strong materialistic values (though some readers may protest that children of divorce simply feel more economically vulnerable than their peers). Drawing on sources as diverse as dream analysis and game theory, Kasser powerfully argues that when we as individuals or as a nation feel more vulnerable, we exhibit more sharply defined materialistic tendencies a theme particularly resonant in this era of terrorist threats, personal debts and corporate scandals. Illus. (Sept.) Forecast: Despite its academic leanings and potentially intimidating charts and tables, Kasser's book will attract the large (and largely affluent) Real Simple audience that seeks to pare down and streamline. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262611978
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2003
  • Pages: 165
  • Sales rank: 328,850
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim Kasser is Associate Professor of Psychology at Knox College, Illinois.

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Read an Excerpt

The High Price of Materialism

By Tim Kasser

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2002 Tim Kasser.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-262-11268-X

Mixed Messages

Chase after money and security And your heart will never unclench. Care about people's approval And you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.

Twenty-five centuries ago, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu penned these six lines, warning people of the dangers of materialistic values. Sages from almost every religious and philosophical background have similarly insisted that focusing on attaining material possessions and social renown detracts from what is meaningful about life. Although we may nod our heads in recognition of this ancient wisdom, such advice is largely drowned out by today's consumeristic hubbub of messages proclaiming that material pursuits, accumulation of things, and presentation of the "right" image provide real worth, deep satisfactions, and a genuinely meaningful life. Newspaper headlines exalt the local lottery winner. Get-rich-quick books climb to the tops of best-seller lists. Multicolor ads flash on Web pages. Celebrities on television hawk everything from sport utility vehicles to mascara. Although they differ in form, each of these messages essentially proclaims "Happiness can be found at the mall, on the Internet, or in the catalogue."

Both types of messages about the value of materialism coexist in contemporary life, and it can be difficult to know whether to follow the sages or the celebrities. Who is right?Will the pursuit of money and possessions bring about "the good life"? Or are the promises of consumer society false?

It seems that wherever we inquire about the value of materialism, we receive conflicting answers. We can ask the government, but while politicians worry that popular consumer culture has displaced community and family values, economic considerations play an overwhelmingly central role in the decisions of most elected officials. We can turn to religious leaders, but while the Bible says that a person who cares about wealth will have trouble entering the kingdom of heaven, televangelists with toothy smiles pull in millions of dollars contributed by their viewers. We can ask wealthy people, but while John Jacob Astor III bemoans, "Money brings me nothing but a certain dull anxiety," Malcolm Forbes replies, "Money isn't everything, as long as you have enough." We can ask the poets, but while Robert Graves writes "There's no poetry in money," Wallace Stevens says "Money is a kind of poetry."

If we turn to psychology for answers we find that it is similarly ambivalent about materialistic values? On the one hand, much of the work conducted by evolutionary and behavioral psychologists is quite compatible with the notion that attainment of wealth and status is of great importance. Evolution-based theories, such as that of David Buss, suggest that the desire to be perceived as wealthy, attractive, and of high status may be built into our genes, as these characteristics (like an opposable thumb or a large forebrain) enabled our ancestors to survive. Similarly, behavioral theories, such as B. F. Skinner's and Albert Bandura's, hold that the successful attainment of external rewards is a motivator of all behavior, and indeed fundamental to individuals' adaptation to society. The behaviorist idea that happiness and satisfaction come from attaining wealth and possessions is exemplified by the fact that the founder of American behaviorism, John Watson, took the basic psychological principles of learning and applied them to advertising on Madison Avenue, a model since followed by thousands of psychologists.

Although behavioral and evolutionary theories largely dominated American academic psychology in the last century, humanistic and existential thinkers such as Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and Erich Fromm voiced a sharply contrasting opinion about the worth of materialistic pursuits. Although they acknowledged the fact that some level of material comfort is necessary to provide for humans' basic physical needs, these psychologists proposed that a focus on materialistic values detracts from well-being and happiness? Humanistic and existential psychologists tend to place qualities such as authentic self-expression, intimate relationships, and contribution to the community at the core of their notions of psychological health. From their viewpoint, a strong focus on materialistic pursuits not only distracts people from experiences conducive to psychological growth and health, but signals a fundamental alienation from what is truly meaningful. For example, when spouses spend most of their time working to make money, they neglect opportunities to be with each other and do what most interests them. No matter how many fancy designer clothes, cars, or jewels they might obtain, no matter how big their house or how up-to-date their electronic equipment, the lost opportunity to engage in pleasurable activities and enjoy each others' companionship will work against need satisfaction, and thus against psychological health.

Given the obviously different sets of predictions about materialism proffered by psychological theories and societal messages, one might expect to find a substantial body of empirical research on this subject. But when I began studying the topic in the early 1990s, I was surprised by the paucity of attempts to bring the scientific method to bear on materialistic values. Certainly there existed substantial social criticism of consumer society and anecdotal evidence regarding the problems of materialistic values. Yet most of the research I found attempted to understand the place of materialism in people's lives by examining how wealth was associated with happiness and psychological adjustment. The basic question behind this research was, "Does money buy happiness?" In answer, psychologists David Myers and Ed Diener wrote:

People have not become happier over time as their cultures have become more affluent. Even though Americans earn twice as much in today's dollars as they did in 1957, the proportion of those telling surveyors from the National Opinion Research Center that they are "very happy" has declined from 35 to 29 percent. Even very rich people—those surveyed among Forbes magazine's 100 wealthiest Americans—are only slightly happier than the average American. Those whose income has increased over a 10-year period are not happier than those whose income is stagnant. Indeed, in most nations the correlation between income and happiness is negligible—only in the poorest countries, such as Bangladesh and India, is income a good measure of emotional well-being. Are people in rich countries happier, by and large, than people in not so rich countries? It appears in general they are, but the margin may be slim ... Furthermore, ... it is impossible to tell whether the happiness of people in wealthier nations is based on money or is a by-product of other felicities.

Research on the happiness of wealthy and poor people makes it clear that how much we have bears relatively little relationship to our well-being, beyond the point of ensuring sufficient food, shelter, and clothing to survive. Although this is important information, my view is that an inquiry into materialism must go further. To understand fully its impact on people's lives, we must explore how materialistic wants relate to well-being. Because society tells us repeatedly that money and possessions will make us happy, and that they are significant goals for which we should strive, we often organize our lives around pursuing them. But what happens to our well-being when our desires and goals to attain wealth and accumulate possessions become prominent? What happens to our internal experience and interpersonal relationships when we adopt the messages of consumer culture as personal beliefs? What happens to the quality of our lives when we value materialism? Personal Well-Being

To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make money in the shortest time must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery.

—Andrew Carnegie.

In recent years, scientific investigators working in a variety of fields have begun to tally the costs of a materialistic lifestyle. Although the body of empirical literature on materialism is not large, especially compared with what we know about topics such as depression, stereotyping, neurons, and memory, its findings are quite consistent. Indeed, what stands out across the studies is a simple fact: people who strongly value the pursuit of wealth and possessions report lower psychological well-being than those who are less concerned with such aims.

Research from Our Lab

Since 1993 my colleagues and I have been publishing a series of papers in which we have been exploring how people's values and goals relate to their well-being. Our focus has been on understanding what people view as important or valuable in life, and on associating those values statistically with a variety of other aspects of their lives, such as happiness, depression, and anxiety. What people value clearly varies from one individual to another. For some, spirituality and religion are of paramount importance; for others, home life, relationships, and family are especially valued; other people focus on having fun and excitement, and others on contributing to the community. In our work, we have been particularly interested in individuals for whom materialistic values are relatively important. That is, compared with other things that might be deemed central to one's life, what happens psychologically when a person feels that making money and having possessions are relatively high in the pantheon of values?

Our First Study

To obtain an answer to this question, Richard Ryan and I began by developing a questionnaire to measure people's values, which we called the Aspiration Index. People who complete this questionnaire are presented with many different types of goals and asked to rate each one in terms of whether it is not at all important, somewhat important, extremely important, and so on. The current version of the Aspiration Index includes a large number of possible goals people might have, such as desires to feel safe and secure, to help the world be a better place, to have a great sex life, and to have good relationships with others. By assessing different types of goals, we can obtain a valid assessment of how important materialistic values are in the context of a person's entire system of values. Most value researchers view this as crucial and insist that we can know how much someone values a particular outcome only when that value is considered in relation to other things that might possibly be valued.


Excerpted from The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser. Copyright © 2002 by Tim Kasser. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Mixed Messages 1
Ch. 2 Personal Well-Being 5
Ch. 3 Psychological Needs 23
Ch. 4 Insecurity 29
Ch. 5 Fragile Self-Worth 43
Ch. 6 Poor Relationships 61
Ch. 7 The Chains of Materialism 73
Ch. 8 Family, Community, and the Earth 87
Ch. 9 Making Change 97
Epilogue 117
Notes 119
References 129
Index 143
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2004


    This very short book demonstrates the truth of the proverb, 'Money does not buy happiness.' Author Tim Kasser cites numerous studies as he makes a compelling case that materialists are lonely, narcissistic, hampered in relationships, compulsive, insecure and disconsolate. This excellent, necessary work should be required reading for every graduating student and mid-career executive or professional. It is not quite a self-help book, although the author does offer a chapter of advice on how people can attempt to change their ways and even to form a less materialistic society. This is not merely a psychological study, although it recapitulates numerous experiments. It is only in part a polemic against materialism. On the whole, it is a curious work, one that may be a bit too facile and popular in tone to satisfy the most rigorous academic reader, yet far too packed with source citations to appeal immediately to many casual readers. We appreciate this thorough presentation of evidence for a truth to which even the most ardent materialists (such as the Material Girl herself) pay reflexive lip service. No individual or society can legitimately ignore the fact that material success does not correlate with satisfaction or well-being but has a high correlation with low self-esteem, depression, divorce and various forms of abuse.

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