A researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands studied 2,500 consumers over 6 years and recently published a paper on the subject, so now we know the answer.
“It is widely believed that there is a vicious cycle in which loneliness leads to materialism and materialism in turn contributes to loneliness. But, contrary to popular beliefs about the universal perils of materialism, the pursuit of material possessions as part of a lifestyle of ‘happy hedonism’ may not actually be detrimental to consumer well-being when kept within certain limits,” says Rik Pieters, the paper’s author.
He concludes that loneliness is liable to lead to materialism.
While materialism sometimes caused loneliness, it could also decrease loneliness. Loneliness increased over time for consumers who valued material possessions as a measure of success or a type of “happiness medicine,” but decreased for those who sought possessions just for the sheer joy and fun of consumption.
Mirth vs. Medicine
Not surprisingly, he also found that singles were lonelier than other consumers. Singles went after material possessions not so much for the pleasure of acquiring and owning them, but more as a kind of “material medicine.” In addition, men were more likely to view possessions as a measure of success in life and as a material medicine, whereas women viewed possessions more as a source of “material mirth.”
“While materialism can increase loneliness, it may actually reduce loneliness for some consumers. Increasing opportunities for social interaction and improving social skills may be more effective at reducing loneliness than the usual appeals to turn off the television or stop shopping,” Pieters says.
So, no, it seems that materialism does not necessarily lead to a vicious circle of shopping making consumers lonelier, leading to more shopping as a fix. While materialism can be bad for people who seek meaning or status through their possessions, it can actually benefit those who acquire possessions solely for pleasure and comfort.
In other words, materialism may not entirely deserve its bad reputation.
Rik Pieters. Bidirectional Dynamics of Materialism and Loneliness: Not Just a Vicious Cycle. Journal of Consumer Research, 2013; : 000 DOI: 10.1086/671564