Reality Check: A Material World

Time and again, I hear folks say, “We are too materialistic; we buy too much; we throw too much away. We have too much debt, we have too much stress; we should stop living like this.”

Does that sound familiar to you?

Implied in those sentiments is the idea that we are forced to want what we don’t have and to buy things that we don’t need. Life becomes a nonstop run on a hamster wheel, where we are continuously chasing more and more consumer goods that are always slightly out of reach.

This view suggests that something external to us forces us to think that we must have things we don’t really want or need. That external forcing is identified in choice theory as “external control psychology.”

Now, if you are satisfied with the life you are leading, that’s fine. However, I’ve observed folks who are sincerely remorseful about their own buying and wasteful habits, yet feel genuinely helpless to change. The material world has them in its clutches.

Karen, for example, believes that everybody “should” live within their means, reduce their consumption and waste, and get along with each other. However, when Karen takes a close look at her own life, she can’t find a way out of her debt and she is tormented by guilt over her purchases.

There’s just so much that she needs—diapers for the baby, processed food because of her limited time, a suitable wardrobe for work, up-to-date electronic gadgets so she can communicate, educational toys for the children, the list goes on. All of those purchases cost money and generate waste.

This waste and the debt in her life cause a conflict for Karen—her actions are not in line with her values. That conflict contributes to Karen’s overwhelming sense that she is leading an unsatisfied life.

Karen feels both guilty and angry. She feels guilty when she hauls her garbage out to the curb, and sees that rather than getting smaller, this week’s pile is even larger than last week’s or the week before.

And Karen feels angry because, in her perception, her neighbours buy countless unnecessary consumer goods, generate loads of garbage, and they don’t even seem to feel guilty about it.

Karen’s choice of “guilting” over the lack of change in her own life has led her to impulsively write substantial cheques to green organizations. Her choice of “angering” has led her to lecture her neighbours about what she perceives as their uncaring attitude.

The outcome of those behaviours, of course, hasn’t reduced Karen’s waste or helped her out of debt. And lecturing the neighbours didn’t exactly help her toward her goal of getting along with everyone. While writing cheques and “educating” the neighbours may have helped her feel better temporarily, Karen recognizes that she will not be satisfied if she can’t resolve the clash between her values and actions.

Ultimately, it’s Karen who chooses her own behaviours. What choices would you suggest for Karen that could help her lead a more satisfied life?

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