by Natasha Parker, Head of Compassion not Consumerism
8 min read
Global Action Plan has spent the last two years researching how to help young people be more resilient to consumerist pressure. Our findings have now been published in an article in the European Journal of Positive Psychology.
We wanted to understand if it was possible to help young people turn away from materialistic goals and if so, how? We teamed up with the University of Surrey and an international panel of academic experts to help us put this question to the test.
Consumerism: Bad for us, bad for the planet
In order to live well within the earth’s limits we need to prioritise ways of living that enable us to have more fun with less stuff, yet young people are exposed to an extraordinary and unprecedented volume of advertising that encourages them to seek fun, happiness and self-worth through buying more.
Decades of research tell us that people who prioritise materialistic goals in life such as image, status and wealth, (or as we like to call them - looks, likes and shopping!) have lower wellbeing and higher ecological footprints.
When we say “lower wellbeing”, we don’t just mean they’re a bit less happy, we mean they are significantly more likely to suffer from a whole range of indicators of psychological ill-being such as loneliness, eating disorders, depression and anxiety. There is no shortage of evidence demonstrating that materialistic goals are bad for our mental health.
Encouraging young people to aspire towards materialistic goals sets them up for a lifetime of hyper-consumption. It becomes ever more important to have the latest clothes, make-up, phones and technology, then later in life the big house, the expensive car and the luxury holidays. These materialistic aspirations that many of us have got used to as “normal” rely on the illusion of infinite resources and on the oppression of people who make our goods to keep them affordable.
The increasingly short lifespan of trends then means that our prized possessions quickly become either technologically or psychologically redundant, a source of embarrassment even, turning them into waste.
From the jaw-dropping stats about the destruction of rainforests, extinction of animals, plastics in the ocean, child labour and impending climate change caused by all this over consumption of stuff we don’t need that doesn’t make us happy, the cost to both people and planet of our consumerist culture is huge.
Setting Goals for Good
Working with the University of Surrey and an international panel of academic experts, we designed a course called ‘Goals for Good’ and experimentally tested its effectiveness at reducing materialistic goals in young adults in 3 countries; the UK, Italy and Hungary.
Using the latest research into what might work to reduce materialism, we asked participants to set goals for themselves using the 5 ways to wellbeing; Connect, Keep Learning, Be Active, Take Notice and Give. We then asked them to consider how they could tweak their goals to have a positive impact on other people or the planet - a Goal for Good.
One participant, Paddy, set a goal to start volunteering offering “cocktails in care homes” enabling him to “give” (one of the 5 ways to wellbeing) and have a positive impact on others. You can watch Paddy talk about his goals in this short video.
We compared the impact on Goals for Good participants’ levels of materialism to participants who undertook a control course. Participants in the Goals for Good group had a significantly reduced materialistic goal orientation which was maintained two months after course had finished. Participants in the control group saw no changes in their materialism.
So can we help young people be more resilient to consumerist pressures? Yes, if we all consciously choose goals that help us build resilience to materialism by nourishing ourselves with goals that truly enhance our wellbeing. As one participant said:
“If I'd gone out and bought a new phone I’d feel good for the next couple of days but then it’s not new anymore, whereas if you've done something good with your time and made an impact on someone, you know you've made a real difference to that person”.
The benefits of goal setting of this kind will be clear to employers as well as educational leaders. They can take an active role in supporting the mental health of young people through running this course. You can access our free Goals for Good Schools' toolkits on our Transform Our World online hub, or if you are with a business, find out more through our Goals for Good page.
You can also find out more about why we created Goals for Good in this short animation.
Read the full journal article “Goals for Good: Testing an Intervention to Reduce Materialism in Three European Countries” in the European Journal of Applied Positive Psychology.