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Are the Material Girls and Boys Happy in 2008?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The pop singer Madonna began singing "Material Girl" in 1985 and now, 23 years later, we can still hear it playing over again, echoing in our minds…

Living in a material world And I am a material girl You know that we are living in a material world And I am a material girl…


We were reminded of this song when we recently saw the nearly 50-year-old Madonna topping Forbes magazine’s list of the richest women in the music industry. There’s no question that materialism as personified by Madonna in the 1980s today permeates American culture. But is America happier since it has adopted materialism as its secular religion? Interestingly enough, the answer is clearly "no."

The United Kingdom’s New Scientist magazine published the results of a study investigating socio-cultural and political change of more than 65 countries. The researchers used the World Values Survey that included some questions about how happy people are and how satisfied they are with their lives. An international group of social scientists conducted the survey, and they came to some conclusions which may surprise you.

Although incomes have risen considerably since World War II, they say happiness levels have remained virtually the same in industrial countries. Researchers believe the reason for the happiness levels staying stagnant despite the increase in earnings is linked to consumerism. Being in a wealthy industrialized country is no guarantee of happiness. In fact, some of the happiest people in the world live in undeveloped parts of Africa, Latin America and Mexico.

Another finding from the study was that the desire for material goods is described by the researchers as "a happiness suppressant."

"Materialism is toxic for happiness," says University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener. He points out even rich materialists are not as happy as those who care less about getting and spending. Materialism has an insatiable appetite for material possessions or objects.


So who are the happiest people?

Research psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky, who has written a book on happiness by taking a scientific approach, says, "We are …unlikely to find lasting happiness by changing our life circumstances. Although we may achieve temporary boosts in well-being by moving to new parts of the country, securing raises, or changing our appearances, such boosts are unlikely to be long-lasting. The primary reason…is that people readily and rapidly adapt to positive circumstantial changes."

The happiest people are those who are connected to and value family and friends, desire less and don’t compare themselves to others, have faith and help others. Not only that, they are able to lose themselves in absorbing activities, have gratitude, learn to savor even small pleasures and, most importantly, forgive others.

To prevent children from becoming too focused on material possessions, Dr. Marvin Goldberg from Pennsylvania State University, who has studied materialism and youth, says "balance is the key." Materialism is a value according to Goldberg and as long as it remains in balance with other values such as family, friendship, faith, health and the outdoors, there is no problem.

"Nobody is suggesting implicitly or explicitly that we need to be monks, where the materialism value slips to nil," explains Goldberg. "The issue becomes a concern only when someone makes materialism their main focus, because it can displace other values that we see as very important in our society." Goldberg advises parents to teach children the importance of non-material values and make sure to spend time with children in non-consumption activities.


So how is the world doing 23 years after Madonna sang "Material Girl"? Dr. Goldberg suspects adolescents today are more materialistic than they were 20 years ago, partly due to marketing.

Materialism says "I’ll be happy when I have"…and contentment says, "I am happy because of what I already have." A good reminder to all of us is what Frederick Koenig once wisely said, "We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have."

But St. Paul sums it up best of all when he said, "Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out."

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