We Shop Because We’re Lonely, We’re Lonely Because We Shop

Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and...

It is a sad paradox of modern existence that on a planet thick with humans—a place chock-full of them—so many are so desperately alone. A recent survey found that more than a third of Americans over 44 are lonely, and almost half of them have felt that way for more than six years. Here we are, desperate mariners floating through a sea of humanity—people everywhere but not a one to have a casual drink with on a Thursday evening while chatting about the latest episode of True Detective. What are we doing wrong?

There are plenty of potential reasons for this state of affairs, enough theories to fill sociological textbooks and fuel a thousand think-pieces. Is the big anonymous city isolating us? Whatever happened to bowling and community? Is it Facebook’s fault? One common explanation, the scapegoat in plenty of vaguely countercultural movies and high-school pot-smoking bullshit sessions, is materialism. Call it the Fight Club Thesis: our love of objects is making us sad.

The general theory is that materialism can “crowd out” social relationships; your handbag collection temporarily makes you feel like you don’t need the comfort of human relations or to make the painful effort of actually finding companionship. A 2008 study found that people who imagined they were socially excluded put more of a priority on money, appearance, and popularity. Similarly, people who remembered instances of being socially excluded became more attached to their belongings for comfort.

A recent study by Rik Pieters, a researcher at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management in The Netherlands, though, sought to investigate the “bidirectional dynamics” of loneliness and materialism—not just test if being lonely made you more materialistic, but if being materialistic made you lonelier.

In the study [PDF], Pieters followed more than 2,500 Dutch people over six years. For more specificity, the researcher broke materialism down into three categories that have subtle but significant differences. What Pieters calls “acquisition centrality” is pure, unfettered materialism. It’s the consumerism of the shopaholic—an unadulterated love of acquiring and owning possessions. “Possession-defined success” is the desire to keep up with your neighbours, a status-driven urge to make sure you’re not falling behind. And “acquisition in the pursuit of happiness” is exactly what it sounds like: buying with the belief that happiness is just one more Apple product away. It is materialism that “reflects a deficit.”

Pieters gave respondents an 18-item questionnaire designed to differentiate between these strains of materialism by asking them to rate how much they agreed with statements such as: “I like a lot of luxury in my life” (acquisition centrality), “I like to own things that impress people,” (possession-defined success), or, “I’d be happier if I could afford to buy more things” (pursuit of happiness). Loneliness, similarly, was measured using blunt statements such as: “I feel isolated from others,” “I am unhappy being so withdrawn,” “People are around me but not with me.”

By getting people to answer these questions across the years, Pieters was able to chart the way the two characteristics influence one another. He found that, over time, loneliness increased materialism and materialism increased loneliness (though the effects here were much smaller). Consumers can find themselves in a vicious circle, shopping because they’re sad, getting sadder as they shop, shopping some more—a loneliness loop that threatens to end with authorities discovering you alone in your apartment, long since dead, surrounded by a heaps of unopened Amazon boxes.

Surprisingly, however, as Pieters dug down into the different types of materialism, he found that not all materialism makes you miserable. While those who shopped in pursuit of happiness or to attain a particular status predictably increased loneliness over time, the people shopping out of “acquisitive centrality” actually seemed to decrease their loneliness.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Those shopping to fill a hole in their lives were never going to find happiness that way. After buying yet another pair of sunglasses with the hope that, at long last, they would win the admiration of their peers and find true contentment, they ended up feeling more lonely than ever. The pure shoppers, meanwhile, bought a new pair of sunglasses out of love for the shades themselves. They may be materialistic, but their motivations were innocent. So: if you’re lonely, don’t expect buying something to help you. If, on the other hand, you are a legitimately shallow person who loves objects with a pure heart, those new glasses may just take the sting off your abject isolation.

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Nicholas Hune-Brown is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist who has written for Toronto Life, The Walrus, Reader's Digest, The Believer, and many other publications.