Research shows splashing the cash doesn't make you happy, so why do we continue to do it?
Why we have to change our spend, spend, spend culture
A recent study by researchers at Zayed University found that people who put a high value on material things - cars, money, or lavish weddings - experience lower levels of life satisfaction than their less materialistic counterparts. The study also found that people in the United Arab Emirates, both citizens and residents, ranked very high on the Richins Materialism Scale. The study’s co-author even went as far as to say no other reported study has found a level of materialism higher than that in the UAE.
Materialism and consumerism have been linked to almost every possible negative personality trait you can think of, including narcissism, insecurity and mental health issues, such as depression. So why are we continuing to spend money when it doesn’t make us happy? One of the more obvious reasons is because owning things is typically used as a measure of success. The woman who owns the Rolls-Royce is more successful than the man who owns the Toyota Corolla. The family with the big house is more successful than the family with the small apartment. The lady with the expensive handbag is more successful than the lady who carries around a plastic bag. We define success as happiness, when really it should be the other way around, and that unfortunately is something money cannot buy.
There has been plenty of research that says money cannot buy true happiness, but what it can buy, I believe, is peace of mind. You see, money can only make us happy to a degree: money to buy a home that we can be comfortable in, money to feed our families and put clothes on their back, money to educate our children and ensure they have a stable future. These fit into the foundational levels of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which includes physiological needs, such as food, water and warmth, as well safety needs such as security, which money can buy. But beyond that, you are pretty much on your own, or at least with the people who care for you. You can’t buy true love and belonging, you can’t buy esteem or a feeling of true accomplishment and you can’t buy self-actualisation or the belief that you are living your life to its full potential. Those are all things that have to be built over time, that require people to shut off the noise from the outside world, to turn off all the commercials and to look deep into their lives and what is important to them.
Societal and social pressures in the UAE have not made this process easy. I think one part of this is the narrative that has been built about the UAE within our own country and to the outside world. We build the tallest towers, the largest shopping malls and the most expensive hotels. Our goal is to be number 1. As an Emirati, the goal of me making my country number 1 on the map is something I am very much behind, but that doesn’t mean I have to live in the tallest towers, shop in the largest malls or stay at the most expensive hotel to show that I am fully committed to that goal or fit the narrative. Unfortunately for many in the UAE, that has been the case. We live in a country where the possibilities for achievement are endless, so why aren’t you making it? The pressure is on us as individuals to make our dreams a reality, to live the “good” life, and if we can’t realise it, the quickest and arguably easiest way is to make it look like we are - cue the fancy car, expensive watch, and every other luxurious item that will have us wondering why over half our salary disappears a day after it lands in our accounts.
Another part to play is the lack of financial education. Many individuals and families living in the country today are the first or second generation to see the kind of wealth they have, and in most cases individuals with new money like to show the world they have money, regardless of the consequences. One of those consequences is realising that no matter how rich you are, there will always be someone wealthier than you, unless you’re Bill Gates of course. More importantly, no matter how much you buy to make you happy, there will always be something better that comes out the next day claiming to make you happier. It’s a never ending cycle. I believe financial education and to some extent life coaching or mentoring can play a critical role in developing a level of understanding and self-realisation to prevent materialistic habits.
There are, of course, positive examples we can follow. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, is one such example: for his humility, not just in how he connects and engages with citizens in the world, but also in how he lives his life. Sheikh Mohammed can be spotted driving around Abu Dhabi in a regular car and wearing traditional Emirati clothes. If someone didn’t know who he was, he would seem like an ordinary man just going about his day. Why can’t we all do the same?
In my humble opinion, we should follow the same practices in our day to day lives so that we are no longer identified by how much we spend, but how humble we are.