Which is more important to you: your material possessions or your personal values?

Off hand, most people would answer with their values. When the concept of materialism—a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values—is reduced to this basic question, it’s easier to decide and state where our priorities lie.

But what about our day-to-day lives? Sometimes it’s difficult to resist an indulgent purchase (do you really need another scented candle?) or the pull of social cues or comparisons (your best friend’s new place is so much bigger than yours…). It can be hard to make educated choices, too, like deciding between two items, one significantly more environmentally responsible, but also more expensive.

Decisions about what to purchase are difficult. Even more difficult is deciding where the line is between wanting nice things and prioritizing material possessions over all else. What if there was proof that materialism actually makes us worse people, though? Would that make the choice a little easier?

Science is now doing its part to potentially persuade us away from materialism, with significant evidence that materialism not only harms others, but our own happiness, too:

Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior

Ever nearly been hit by a speeding Porsche, BMW, or Lexus while walking, biking, or driving? Perhaps you can sheepishly admit to being the stereotypical “arrogant driver” yourself?

According to a 2012 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people driving luxury cars are more likely to fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk. In seven studies conducted by Berkeley psychologists Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner along with researchers from the University of Toronto, results broadly showed not only a tendency towards reckless driving, but also showed evidence that wealthier individuals are more likely to cheat and act unethically.

In studies 1 and 2, the researchers found that upper-class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving, relative to lower-class individuals. The team used vehicle make, model, and year as shorthand for the driver’s social status. Regardless of gender, time of day, and similar variables, the research team found that higher-status drivers were more likely to cut off other drivers at intersections or fail to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

In follow-up laboratory studies, upper-class individuals were more likely to exhibit unethical decision-making tendencies (study 3), take valued goods from others (study 4), lie in a negotiation (study 5), cheat to increase their chances of winning a prize (study 6), and endorse unethical behavior at work (study 7) than were lower-class individuals.

Data from the study demonstrated that upper-class individuals’ unethical tendencies were partially accounted for by their more favorable attitudes toward greed. The authors wrote: “Upper-class individuals’ relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts.”

Our Stuff is Stressing us Out

Picture the last time you cleaned out a space in your home. Was it stressful?

In a book published by researchers at U.C.L.A. called “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century,” results showed that, in the 32 middle-class Los Angeles families they observed, all of the mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with their belongings. Seventy-five percent of the families involved in the study couldn’t park their cars in their garages because they were too filled with things, homes with yards were rarely used, and most of the families relied heavily on convenience foods like frozen meals and pre-baked bread, despite saving only 10 or so minutes per meal in doing so.

Similarly, in a 2012 study published by the Association for Psychological Science “Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being,” researchers from Northwestern University found correlational evidence across four experiments that indicated materialistic individuals experience relatively low levels of well-being. In one experiment, just viewing desirable consumer goods resulted in increases in materialistic concerns and led to “heightened negative affect and reduced social involvement”.

Americans have 3 times the space we did 50 years ago… and we’re not any happier

Guess what else we have in excess? 2.2 billion square feet of personal storage.

In Graham Hill’s TEDTalk “Less stuff, more happiness,” the former owner of Seattle-based Internet consultancy company Sitewerk explains:

“… We’ve got triple the space, but we’ve become such good shoppers that we need even more space. So where does this lead? Lots of credit card debt, huge environmental footprints, and perhaps not coincidentally, our happiness levels flat-lined over the same 50 years.”

In 1998, Graham and his business partner sold Sitewerks for more money than either of them expected to earn in a lifetime. To celebrate, Hill bought a four-story, 3,600-square foot home in a trendy Seattle neighborhood. He then began to fill the house and make other expensive purchases, like an additional apartment in New York City. In Graham’s own words:

“My success and the things it bought quickly changed from novel to normal. Soon I was numb to it all. The new Nokia phone didn’t excite me or satisfy me. It didn’t take long before I started to wonder why my theoretically upgraded life didn’t feel any better and why I felt more anxious than before.”

Fast-forward to present day and Hill is the CEO of LifeEdited, a business that works with developers to market buildings that embody small space living. He is also the founder of media outlet TreeHugger, which works to push sustainability into the mainstream with a design-forward style.

These days, Graham lives in a 420-square foot apartment in Manhattan. Included in his well-designed tiny place? A home office, space for a sit-down dinner for 10, and moveable walls and multi-purpose items that create more space, comfort, and luxury than one might imagine with that square footage.

A leader in reducing materialism, Graham encourages others to do some life editing:

“I’m not saying that we all need to live in 420 sq. ft. But consider the benefits of an edited life. Go from 3,000 to 2,000, from 1,500 to 1,000. Most of us, maybe all of us, [live] pretty happily for a bunch of days with a couple of bags, maybe a small space, a hotel room. So when you go home and you walk through your front door, take a second and ask yourselves, ‘Could I do with a little life editing? Would that give me a little more freedom? Maybe a little more time?’”

Perhaps these are questions we can all ask ourselves. We might lose some material things, but it’s scientifically probable that we will gain some happiness in return.


Amanda Oliver is a freelance writer, librarian, and frequent traveler. Currently all of her belongings fit into one suitcase. Visit her website, or follow her on Twitter: @aelaineo.