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On the intersections of materialism, social media and emotional health

by Lana Lorenzo, MSW, LMSW

 

Instead of taking in my senses and experiencing in vivo the film I have been looking forward to experiencing I scroll my through my social media feeds. I stare a little too hard at one image my attention becomes hyper-focused my eyes tense and throb as during a caffeine overload ..my breath quickens my heart races. I fervently seek any flaw in the desirable image and commentary to help stabilize my being that will allow me to move on so that I may end that all too familiar sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach, the lightheadedness, the palpitations, the racing thoughts and the “shameful” emotions that are envy and jealousy. The bottomless pit of desire sinks in and alas that all too familiar FOMO and lack floods me with gut wrenching anxiety.

I don’t know the photo post I pine over deceptively promises totality and completion within an isolated frame. I don’t care. I want to be that. I want to go there, now. I sit in silence and wait for the voices. You will never be enough. You are lacking …”Respect your process you are unique,” but lack is deterministic and all of a sudden I am splitting between everything and nothing. As I desperately fumble for something stabilizing a series of frantic realizations appear, I am not living my best life if I am sitting here doing nothing. I am ordinary. I will always have to try twice as hard for crumbs of a worthy existence. I enter the endless void of desire become flooded with a familiar sense of urgency and this ever pervasive feeling of bottomless dread. Everything in me is shifting so fast I try to locate a source of concentrated strength but I grasp at nothing concrete. I search for my endorphin rush from the Pilates class I took earlier, recall the zen tea made of sticks and twigs I drank earlier ..nothing. Where is the part of me that is rooted in something secure, something substantial?

Everything is jumbled. My soul hurts. I feel humiliated, suspicious, lied to, as if I missed some insider scoop about myself that others know. I am suddenly sluggish, my vitality diminished. I throw back some chocolates hoping for a neurotransmitter surge, shift in my seat and check my email because I also know I have no idea that what is aching me. I turn to my friend hoping for some salvation but I don’t have the articulation nor the understanding to communicate the source of my displeasures. I realize it’s far more complicated than missing out or a desire as it is about feeling less than, feeling without. Though I have everything I need something in me doesn’t feel like I am enough. Eventually I fear I will vomit something less than meaningful just maddening off the mark and far more superficial than I intuitively feel on the inside. I worry my friend will choose to moralize why envy and jealousy are ugly, or wonder about the status of envy within the friendship to maybe use as leverage someday. I fall into a hopeless despair. I don’t even remember the film I am watching, the smell of popcorn or my friend sitting
beside me.

This experience is the culmination of countless ruminating thoughts and stories of “failed” or “faux” selves that are recounted in the many lives of the young adults I work with who courageously attempt to thread their narratives in therapy, and whom experience the emotional backlash of their aspirations within urban life in New York
City.

I am a psychotherapist. Simply put, I help people to help themselves. Of the myriad of disciplines and cross studies navigated, explored and committed to translation for practice as well as in session work, it has become apparent to me consumer culture ideals, materialism and social media use pervade the therapeutic space together making themselves known as the third entity. Will a hopeful cure be as elusive and abstract as the dominant societal ideals that have become our gods?

We have long moved on from a commodity, goods and services economy, into an age of experience, a total story, a script that threads collective ideals with an individualistic slant that offers a unique experience just for you. Advertising and marketing no longer sell products, they sell total immersive experiences while offering emotionally appealing storytelling depicting a myriad of ideal lifestyles that are not value neutral. The local meet and greet with a penchant to attract loyalty serves coffee at $5 a cup, it’s not great coffee you say but you learn the price is justified because the coffee beans come from a fair trade business and served in an eco- friendly cup. It’s almost as if you will be transformed to a new you by purchasing from this company brand. You are a good human, a contributor. You are thoughtful, considerate. Then one day your online healthy lifestyle stream eloquently shows vibrant pics from a farmers market and an urgent realization befalls you, you need to eat local food for a more sustainable living but cannot afford local pricing and have to shop at a chain superstore. You loathe yourself because although you can afford bulk for economy prices, you also feel immense guilt because inexpensive goods also correlate with depressed labor wages. So ..what do you value? Who are you? What are you really about? What will others think of you? It’s as if your purchases subscribe you to a complicit mindset of ideals and values you are not sure are your own, or maybe so, blending extrinsic values: acquisition, attainment, popularity and pursuit, with intrinsic values associated with:
contribution, intimacy, self-acceptance, understanding and community.

I do not suggest to villainize consumerism, nor do I intend to diminish the value of eco-collective initiatives that support reciprocity and mutual gain. I also do not intend to reduce materialism to shallow conquests as an end in itself. Our relationship with the social and political realms are far more complicated. I have found in my work with the public the political sphere is the personal sphere, and domestic issues are social concerns. We certainly have basic needs for sustenance and security that require tangible solutions and much sentimentality can be derived from acquisition, such as the use of digital technology to store memorable moments or connect people across generations and borders. Social media use can influence public opinion and therefore affect business practices as they seek to connect with consumers. My focus is to create a space to provide the contextual insight to help people fill the spaces in between lack and achievement, importance and popularity, to help others articulate and understand the intent by which to express their examined values, to slow the urgency to do, to be, with the what, why and the now. I have found fears to be without to be a mostly unexplored terrain and often a consequence within some relationship correlating with the use of social media, consumer ideals and materialistic values. Many of times I inquire about social media use and often find it invokes quite a lot of distress. I have found social media content to be masters of persuasion often manipulating perceptions by indirectly enhancing the pain of lack, scarcity, and also acting as the catalyst to exploit jealousy or envy. Many times not overtly by celebrities or business advertisements, but often through online friend affiliations who often appear to vie for image, status, wealth, possessions or materialistic values.

As a mental health worker, I am also concerned with the potential emotional pitfalls of popular societal messages and ideals. We are bombarded with daily messages to bolster performance, productivity and agreeableness. We are inundated with images of attractive people who are outgoing, appear happy, energetic, appear to do more, have access to a wider net of experiences, appear effortless, are sensation seekers, and whom most of all, appear more lovable than we are because no matter what they do or what they have they seem more authentic, more valid, and more closer to what we wish we could be. It’s as if attractive people embody a trust and self-love that you can achieve and sustain instantaneously by proximity. Happiness is within reach if you consume driven by relative deprivation.
Desire and lack are powerful motivators to consume. We buy the aspirations to be the ideal. In every purchase we project into the future a sense of becoming as to arrive at some threshold for importance, relevance, popularity if we have this now, but that it factor, that thing, that ideal appears to constantly elude us, and we are caught up in the thrill and chase of consuming the moment because according to your media feeds
YOLO or FOMO right?

We also have psychological needs for autonomy, authenticity, connectedness, competence and self-mastery. We want to belong. We want to control our narrative, and stand out from the crowd. I want to preface now there are many factors and moving parts that influence how one fulfills and prioritizes needs including personality, culture, family, community dynamics, religion, lifestyle, socioeconomic status and environmental parameters by which one is exposed, which may create reciprocal or reinforced relationships with popular culture, materialistic pursuits, and impact how social media is experienced. I would like to suggest an exploration of our value orientation in relation to
consumer culture.

In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser explores how consumerism and materialism affect our health and happiness. He finds materialistic values are associated with lower wellbeing, including lower self-actualization and esteem (Kasser, 2002). Kasser also pulls together studies from other cultures with similar western ideals to illustrate the impact of strong materialistic values on wellbeing, and draws associations between varying gradations of materialistic orientation with generating physical issues such as headaches, personality disorders, narcissism,
antisocial behavior, depression, anxiety, low life satisfaction and wellbeing (Kasser, 2002, p.22 see chapter 2).

Kasser, Ryan, Couchmen and Sheldon (2004) similarly explore values, beliefs, and goals of culture consumption, and its process by which it becomes part our psyche, and found that materialistic value orientation (MVO), loosely defined as a culturally backed belief of the importance of attaining financial success, nice possessions, right image and high status, derive from experiences induced by insecurity and from social models that support materialistic values (Kasser et at.,2004). Their research reveals that when materialistic values become central to one’s value system well-being declines (Kasser et at.,2004). Furthermore, interpersonal and community relations, as well as the
ecological health of the planet are negatively impacted by behaviors associated with materialism (Kasser et al., 2004). They also denote the impacts of various political, domestic and social fronts that contribute to deprivation, and oppression that undermine feelings of security and autonomy, and influence materialistic pursuits (Kasser et
al.,2004). Lastly, Kasser et al., (2004) discuss the relationships between effective advertising, the spread of capitalism, its interaction with high materialistic orientation and explore how it may undermine or inversely impact relatedness, competence and autonomy.

Marsha Richins (1992) uses social comparison theory and information integration theoretical frameworks deriving from social psychology to examine ways in which stylized and idealized media images influence materialism and peer relatedness. She finds ideas about “what ought to be” in regards to quality of material possessions to be influenced by aspiration groups consisting of peers such as acquaintances, via proximity and commonalities to ourselves. Richins also acknowledges images shown on tv shows, movies, advertisements, expose us to the possibilities of those experiences (Richins, 1992), therefore potentially shaping expectations of one’s desires and expected outcomes. The lack of context offered in advertisements essentially increase our expectations of “what ought to be” also raising our sense of wants about our level of material acquisition, and thus potentially generating unrealistic expectations of
attainment (Richins,1992).

Kasser et al., (2004) finds the discipline of Psychology bears a social responsibility to help others understand the spread of consumer culture and increase resilience in the presence of advertising, especially since many ideas from psychology have been used to direct the goals of businesses, advertising and education by focusing people more heavily on rewards and praise, and to efficiently direct workers, students, and consumers into the channels of action desired by consumer culture” (Kasser et al.,2004, p24). I find value in exploring materialism and cultural ideals with the hope of helping others free up emotional energy whom are unknowingly competing with, or feeling pinned down by the ideals of capitalism, materialism, and consumerism to feel worthy or happy with oneself. I ask us all to explore our aspirations, question its sources and respect the quality time needed to be able to make informed choices by which to direct our living experiences.

References:

Richins, Marsha L. (1992). Media Images, Materialism, and What Ought to Be: the Role of Social Comparison in SV -Meaning, Measure, and Morality of Materialism, eds Floyd, W Rudmin and Marsha Richins, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 202-206.
Retrieved from http://acrwebsite.org/volumes/12215/volumes/sv08/SV-08

Kasser, T. (2002). The high price of materialism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kasser, T., Ryan, R. M., Couchman, C. E., & Sheldon, K. M. (2004). Materialistic values: Their causes and consequences. Retrieved from
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232447683_Materialistic_values_Their_cause
s_and_consequences

Resources:
Kasser, T., & Kanner, A. D. (Eds.). (2004). Psychology and consumer culture: The struggle for a good life in a materialistic world. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Key search terms: Consumer Psychology, materialism, consumerism

Lana is a New York City based Psychotherapist at Refresh Therapy NYC. She is also a New York State registered Licensed Master Social Worker with interests in holistic health, social and economic justice, and film writing. She enjoys travel, film, great food, lectures on culture and wellbeing, and spending time with friends and family.