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‘How much does your dad earn?’ ‘What sort of car does your mum drive?’

These are questions that Year 7's have been heard asking one another.

Surprised? I confess I was, both by the underlying sexism and by the materialism the questions suggested. Does it matter? After all, these are just young boys chatting. Leaving aside the sexism – perhaps a topic for a different platform – I’d argue that it matters deeply because our values affect our well-being and are pretty much hard-wired when we are young. It is much harder to change our values when we are older because our brains are much less flexible. Old habits die hard because old neural pathways die hard, sheathed as they are by a protective, insulating coat of myelin. Hence, if materialism is a significant value for us when we are 11 or 12, if something doesn’t change soon, there’s a high chance that it will stay a significant value for the rest of our lives. Modern neuroscience backs up the old Jesuit maxim: ‘Give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll give you the man.’

So what’s so bad about valuing materialism? Surely we all need ‘stuff’? Somewhere to live, clothes to wear, enough to eat, a means of transport? Absolutely – of course we do. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need illustrates that.

We need our basic physiological and safety needs to be satisfied before we are free to focus on higher order needs like relationships, esteem and self-actualization.

But enough is enough – really! Various studies on the correlation between wealth and happiness reveal some interesting findings. A US General Social survey showed that the difference in reported happiness between people with median range incomes and top earners was insignificant and Ipsos MORI reported that Britain’s rising GDP over fifty years, did nothing for our citizens’ happiness levels. Studies that look at people’s moment-to-moment happiness find a correlation of zero between moments of happiness and income level – although moments of anger, anxiety and excitement were reported amongst those with higher earnings, suggesting that earning more money created more stress. (I have, incidentally, lost count of the number of boys who have talked about parents who are ‘stressed out’ by work!)

Of course, questions about wealth are one way of seeking status – so it’s easy to see why they might be of interest to year 7s, especially if they have learned to value ‘stuff’. Each boy is striving to find his place in the ‘pack’ – we are all mammals, after all. But is this value going to contribute to their well-being long term?

Ancient wisdom suggests that being overly attached to the accumulation of ‘stuff’ is unhelpful to our well-being or happiness. The Old Testament suggests that ‘Money is the root of all evil’ and Jesus teaches: ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes.’ In Buddhist thought ‘dukkha’, which roughly translates as ‘ill-being’, can be caused by craving. The greatest wealth is contentment which cannot be achieved by the single-minded pursuit of material wealth. Lao Tzu wrote: ‘I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.’ I am sure that similar wisdom is embedded in other spiritual traditions.

So do I see a value for materialism impacting on boys’ well-being here at Warwick School? Absolutely! It’s a big player in creating stress and anxiety. If we tie our expectation of happiness to material things – big houses, expensive cars, high earnings – then we are likely to be more stressed if they seem to be slipping out of our reach. Our happiness feels threatened. The fear of this threat comes out in small but undermining ways and is particularly intense around exams. If I do badly in my exams, I might not get onto the next rung of my ladder which will lead to my material success. If the value of materialism has been established in a young brain, that thought is deeply stressful and upsetting.

So what can you do?

  • Everything and anything to value the happiness and value that doesn’t come from ‘stuff’ whether it’s appreciating the beauty in nature or enjoying making something out of nothing or revelling in good friendships or sharing what one of my clients calls ‘folk psychology’ e.g. ‘You can’t buy happiness.’* ‘It is better to give than to receive.’ ‘A hug is the best cure or all.’
  • Deliberately go on low budget holidays and have free or cheap days out – and create your own fun!
  • Put lots of energy into building good relationships and friendships.
  • Limit pocket money and presents at festivals and birthdays.
  • Use charity shops and organisations such as Action 21 (great local source of re-conditioned bikes) to source things.
  • Lend and borrow ‘stuff’.
  • Make do and mend! (My parents were young adults during WW2 so I was deeply immersed in the concept of thrift! I even got my Brownie Thrift Badge!)
  • Use your local library and, of course, the school library.
  • Talk about the non-materialistic teaching in your own spiritual tradition, if you have one.
  • Demonstrate your own ability to be happy with less.
  • Play music that emphasises the values you want to convey. Synapses (neural pathways) are developed by repetition and emotion. We tend to play our favourite music repeatedly and it certainly stimulates emotion. Here’s a good one to start you off!  

*On ‘buying happiness’, neuroscience shows us that ‘retail therapy’ works because each new acquisition rewards us with a shot of dopamine, the chemical responsible for encouraging us to repeat an action. Hence, the pleasure quickly wears off because dopamine doesn’t sit in our system for long – and we feel a need to buy something else to get another reward! You can see why it’s addictive! So money can buy little shots of happiness – but they are insubstantial and short-lived. I’d argue that the ‘folk psychology’ therefore remains true in the long-term!

Meg Harper, School Counsellor