It fits the season.
To put the holiday into perspective the American Psychological Association has released an interview with psychologist TimKasser.
In it Kasser explains that people who are materialistic, who measure life in terms of goods acquired, are less happy and less functional than those who value relationships.
One might say that people who define themselves as moral beings are generally happier than are those who define themselves as beings of desire.
Those who see humans as beings of desire often underemphasize the acquisitive aspect of desire, but if you define yourself as a being of desire you will naturally try to attain whatever you desire, be that objects or experiences.
Kasser does not make the point, but one may ask whether the same holds true for atheists. After all, atheists derogate the spiritual side of life. They reject the existence of a divine creator and benefactor. They believe in materialism.
But does this make them more materialistic? It seems logical that it would. It is worth asking the question.
Kasser explains that materialism impacts one’s relationships. Surely, he makes good sense:
We know from research that materialism tends to be associated with treating others in more competitive, manipulative and selfish ways, as well as with being less empathetic. Such behavior is usually not appreciated by the average person, although it is encouraged by some aspects of our capitalist economic system.
If you believe that your value as a human being can be directly measured by the quantity of your possessions, you will do what it takes to acquire more. You will not care about what you have to do to other people to gain more possessions than they do. And you will see people only as a means to acquiring more or an obstacle to acquiring more.
It follows logically a materialist might even see other people as objects to possess. He might see them as objects to horde or as objects to use and discard. If they are purely material beings, what would prevent you from seeing them as objects.
It’s not going to make them happy, but, for all I know, they might not believe in happiness.
In more real world terms, psychological research has demonstrated that materialistic values will undermine one’s emotional well-being.
In Kasser’s words:
We know from the literature that materialism is associated with lower levels of well-being, less pro-social interpersonal behavior, more ecologically destructive behavior, and worse academic outcomes. It also is associated with more spending problems and debt. From my perspective, all of those are negative outcomes.
We found that the more highly people endorsed materialistic values, the more they experienced unpleasant emotions, depression and anxiety, the more they reported physical health problems, such as stomachaches and headaches, and the less they experienced pleasant emotions and felt satisfied with their lives.
How then should one go about enhancing one’s well-being?
Specifically, materialistic values are associated with living one's life in ways that do a relatively poor job of satisfying psychological needs to feel free, competent, and connected to other people. When people do not have their needs well-satisfied, they report lower levels of well-being and happiness, as well as more distress.
Let’s see: happiness is associated with having the freedom to make decisions that influence the course of your life. This applies, I mention in passing, that believing that your life is a preordained script, one whose outcome is inevitable regardless of how you conduct yourself, will not make you very happy.
Happiness is also associated with the competence you demonstrate when you perform tasks successfully.
As for the notion that happiness, involves being connected to other people, it is worth noting that moral principles like: "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" promote human connection.
But, these precepts are Biblical. Does this mean that those who reject religion in the name of materialism will be led, inexorably, to see their neighbors as competing for goods and to do unto others as they do unto you.
Materialists believe that they can assure their place in society by acquiring more goods. The opposite is true. Pursuing goods for the sake of pursuing goods alienates other people and produces social isolation.
How does one transcend vulgar materialism?
One starts by being kind, considerate and generous toward other people. It means offering a gift that the recipient would like to have, not one that you would like to give. It means taking the time and trouble to think about the other person and to find the right and suitable gift for him.
It might feel strange coming from psychology, but the research shows that those who keep the spirituality in Christmas are generally happier than those who see the holiday in terms of material possessions.
In Kasser’s words:
Psychologist Ken Sheldon and I co-authored a study that found that to the extent people focused their holiday season around materialistic aims like spending and receiving, the less they were focused on spiritual aims. We also found that people reported "merrier" Christmases when spirituality was a large part of their holiday, but reported lower Christmas well-being to the extent that the holiday was dominated by materialistic aspects.
Today’s trendy atheists might consider it a challenge. One suspects that those who believe that there is no God must have very little interest in promoting spirituality. Some of them might identify as pagans, but presumably atheists do not merely reject the one god. They must reject all gods.
If theirs is the most rational point of view, the one that most befits human nature, how do they explain the fact that, when put into practice materialism seems to make people miserable.