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Christmas shopping actually can be good for you

The case for materialism

Kyle Murray is a professor of marketing and the director of the School of Retailing at the University of Alberta

Dec 15, 2016

by Kyle B. Murray


Attending A Christmas Carol is a holiday tradition in Alberta. Theatre Calgary and Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre put on heartwarming productions of Charles Dickens’ classic tale. Although it takes multiple visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Scrooge is eventually transformed into a kinder and more generous man. He opens his heart and his pocketbook to embrace and celebrate the season with family and friends. The story is a timely and entertaining reminder of the spirit of the holidays.

Today, many people are finding it difficult to reconcile the spirit of Christmas with an increasingly materialistic and commercial holiday season. Retailers stock their Christmas sections as early as the summer months and the festive music loops begin early in the fall. As annoying as many people find “Christmas creep,” retailers are feeling intense pressure to perform during the holiday season. The average Albertan is expected to spend more than $2,000 on Christmas this year, including gifts, entertaining, decoration and travel. Our biggest retailers, from Walmart and Canadian Tire to Loblaws and Sobeys, are in a heated competition for those dollars.

As dependably as Santa puts presents under the tree, we will crowd malls, join long lines and spend hours surfing online for the perfect present. At the same time, headlines and coffee shop conversations will decry the rise of materialism. Just last year, the Pope used his Christmas homily to denounce consumption and warn us not to be intoxicated by possessions. But is materialism such a bad thing?

Actually, most research in this area tends to support the Pope. When consumers focus on buying things, they often pay a price, beyond the cash register, that is reflected in a lower overall sense of well-being. In some cases, excessive consumption even appears to be crowding social relationships out of our lives. One particularly interesting recent study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, investigated the link between loneliness and materialism. The study examined 2,500 consumers over a six-year period and found that materialism does indeed make us lonelier. Moreover, when we are feeling lonely, we become more materialistic. This leads to a vicious cycle of buying more and feeling less connected to other people and then buying more and feeling even lonelier. The effect was particularly strong among young adults and seniors. Single people were more likely to pursue happiness through purchases than those in a relationship.

However, the same study found that not all types of materialism are the same. The impact of materialism on loneliness depends on why you are buying and accumulating things. If you are comparing yourself and your possessions to other people, then the impact is decidedly negative. Such comparisons tend to make us feel alone and cause us to focus on buying more. Similarly, if you are thinking about what you have relative to what you would like or expect to have, then you are also likely be lonelier. But if you simply enjoy shopping, buying and owning things, not relative to others or your ideal self, then materialism doesn’t have a negative effect. Consumption can be a positive part of the Christmas experience, whether that is the prize turkey Scrooge buys at the end of A Christmas Carol or the new TV you buy to watch hockey over the holidays.

Of course, we can consume too much and waste money on things that bring us neither utility nor pleasure, but the take-away from this research is that materialism is not in itself a bad thing. It depends on why we value material goods. If we feel caught in a cycle of materialism and loneliness, science tells us that, like Scrooge, we can make a positive change by connecting with others. Christmas doesn’t need to focus on competitive consumption. It can be a chance to take pleasure in material things and spend time with other people. Research in this area tells us to worry less about what we want or what others have and to focus more on the pleasure of what we are given, whether that is a new toy or a new pair of socks. Then, make an effort to connect and reconnect with friends and family.

Although often overlooked, part of Scrooge’s transformation is that he gives up his miserly ways and begins spending his money to celebrate Christmas. In fact, part of the message of A Christmas Carol is that money has little value on its own and buying things is not necessarily bad. One of my favourite lines from the play is spoken by Scrooge’s nephew, who says about Scrooge, “His wealth is of no use to him. He don’t do any good with it. He don’t make himself comfortable with it.” In the end, Scrooge does do something good with it and, as a result, he also makes himself more comfortable. Maybe a little Christmas materialism can be a good thing?

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