Materialism Doesn’t Make You Happy (Johann Hari)

Swiss-British writer and journalist Johann Hari.
“None of you listening to this will lie on their death beds and think about all the sh*t they bought and all the likes they got on Instagram. ”

[You can follow me on Twitter @creatorvilla.] Have you ever chased after something that didn’t satisfy you? We’ve all been there before. We set goals, and we achieved them, only to discover that they weren’t what we needed after all. Materialism is one of the most common values responsible for inspiring deficient life goals. If all we have to live for is a bigger house, car, or nicer pair of sneakers, then we are unlikely to ever experience true fulfillment.

Per his Wikipedia, Johann Hari is a Swiss-British journalist. He has written for syndicated publications including The Independent and The Huntington Post. Hari is author of Chasing the Scream: The Opposite of Addiction is Connection and Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.

Today, I’ve transcribed a clip from The Joe Rogan Experience in which Hari expounds on the emptiness of materialism. He explains that there are two kinds of motivation in life–intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from the enjoyment of an activity itself, while extrinsic motivation is transactional–we perform the activity to get something else out of it. An example of intrinsic motivation is playing piano because you love piano. An example of extrinsic motivation is playing piano to please your parents or impress a girl.

Hari argues that the more extrinsically motivated we are, the more likely we are to experience depression and anxiety. Our culture, he laments, is overrun with extrinsic motivation in the form of people-pleasing, image-conscious behaviors–a manifestation of junk values. Junk values, Hari argues, are exacerbated by social media. According to Hari, the remedy for junk values is knowledge. By educating people on the art of happiness, people will develop intrinsic values more in line with their well-being. More controversially, Hari suggests that top-down ad regulation is another importance piece of the puzzle, and idea that Rogan pushes back against on the grounds that it violates free speech.

Check out the thought-provoking video and transcript, and let me know where you stand down below.


Hari: Nobody had ever scientifically investigated this until an incredible guy I got to know called Professor Tim Kasser, who’s at Knox College in Illinois. And Professor Kasser made some really important breakthroughs in this. There’s two ways–everyone listening to your show has two kinds of motivation in their life–we’re all a mixture of both. Imagine if you play the piano in the morning because you love playing the piano–it gives you joy. That would be what’s called an intrinsic reason to play the piano. You’re not doing it to get anything out of it, that’s the thing you love. Jiu Jitsu is like that for you, writing is like that for me. Everyone will have something in their life that gives them joy as they do it, right.

Now imagine you play the piano not because you love it but because your parents are massively pressuring you. It’s their dream for you. Or at a dive bar that you can’t stand to pay the rent. Or to impress a woman. That would be what’s called an extrinsic motivation to play the piano. You’re not doing it because that thing gives you joy, you’re doing it to get something further down the line. Now obviously we’re all a mixture of both, but Professor Kasser showed a couple of really interesting things.

Firstly, the more you are driven by extrinsic values, the more your intrinsic values are starved, the more likely you are to become depressed and anxious by quite a significant amount. He also showed as a culture, as a society, we have become much more driven by these junk values. We’ve become much more driven–think about how Instagram makes you feel. We’ve become much more driven by this hollow external sense. . .

A little while ago it was Elton John’s last night at Caesar’s Palace, an amazing thing to be at, and about half the room is filming it–not even looking at Elton John, just watching it through their phone. That’s a small example, but you can see what they’re doing. In order to display their life, to invite envy from other people, they are not living their life. No one wants to watch your sh*tty video of Elton John. There’s thousands of videos of Elton John that are much better than yours. Why are you doing that? You are never going to watch it either. You are doing it to say to other people, “Envy me.” It doesn’t make you feel good in that room, it actually makes you feel worse. You’re not enjoying the experience, and it makes them feel like sh*t because you’re trying to invite envy in your friends.

That’s a small example of a much wider thing, of a kind of junk values that have taken over. The reason that relates to what you’re asking about Brazil is that Professor Kasser has shown that there’s two sets of solutions to these junk values that have taken over our minds. One is–it’s like f*cking air pollution–get the messaging out of your head. More 18-month-old children know what the McDonalds M means than know their own surname, their own last name. Professor Kasser put it to me–from the moment we’re born, we’re immersed in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life. None of you listening to this will lie on their death beds and think about all the sh*t they bought and all the likes they got on Instagram. They’ll think about moments of meaning and connection. That’s like a banal, obvious thing, but we’re constantly pushed to not think in those terms, to think about show it off, buy, spend. These junk values have taken over our minds, so part of the solution is just f*cking get rid of most of this advertising, get rid of most of this very tightly regulated. . .

Rogan: But in doing so, you limit commerce, you’re limiting people’s ability to sell things. You’re changing the current market that a lot of people don’t have any problem with.

Hari: I know this is a heresy in the United States, but limiting commercial speech is fine by me.

Rogan: I think it’s fascinating, I think it’s a fascinating discussion, but in a sense it’s limiting free speech as well. And we have a real problem with that. The problem with it is as soon as you start to put any regulations at all. You say, “You shouldn’t be allowed to advertise,” even if it’s advertising honestly about a great product, people will have real issues with that.

Hari: We already have advertising regulation. You can’t put an ad saying “I’ve found the cure for cancer.”

Rogan: That’s what I’m saying, honestly.

Hari: I would argue this is a tightening. For example, in London there was a controversy a little while back. There was a billboard of an impossibly hot woman and an impossibly hot man, and the billboard said something like, “Are you beach-body ready?” The clear implication being if you don’t look like these people who you’ll never f*cking look like, you’re not ready to go to the beach. And the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said you can’t do this.

Rogan: But that’s so silly. I mean it’s not an unobtainable ideal, you’re looking at two examples of it. They’re real human beings. Look, I’m not saying that you have to be that way, but if you do want to look that man and have that body, it is a possible goal.

Hari: It’s not possible for the vast majority of people.

Rogan: If they don’t have the time or the effort, it’s not. But very many people have radically changed their body. I’m not saying that you have to do it, I’m not saying you should do it. But it is a possible thing to do. And if you’re trying to sell fitness, wouldn’t you sell an example of someone who’s really good at it. Like if you’re trying to sell a business course, wouldn’t you show a guy with a giant house and a Ferrari. This is a guy who’s done really well at business. Look at his penthouse apartment overlooking Manhattan. You wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s an impossible goal. I’m going to show you a person in a middle-class suburb because this is as good as you’re going to get.”

Hari: I think that’s a fair point. I think there are two things going on, isn’t there. There’s the freedom of people to market what they want to do, and there’s. . .

Rogan: It’s a nanny-state issue that people have a problem with. By saying these are impossible-to-achieve body goals. . .

Hari: We already have regulation of these things. And people don’t call that a nanny-state thing.

Rogan: We have regulation, but I don’t think this is a good example.

Hari: What’s a better example–Professor Kasser said there’s two sets of solutions to these junk values problems. There’s “Get the contaminants out of the atmosphere sort of thing,” which he says is actually a weaker one than the second set of solutions. So how do we stop people being pumped full of bullsh*t values. .

Rogan: Educate them on what is happening to them and make it less appealing.

Hari: And this is the second part. And you’ve got to what I think was the most important part of the research that Professor Kasser did. He was working with a guy called Nathan Dungan–who I interviewed. Nathan is a financial advisor in Minneapolis, and his job was to work with adults who were having trouble budgeting, and explain budgeting to them and help them do it. And he gets a job from a school. It was a kind-of middle class school–wasn’t super rich, wasn’t poor, it was middle class, where they’re having a problem. The kids at the school we’re becoming obsessed with getting like the latest Nike sneakers or the latest iPhone or whatever it was. And if the parents couldn’t afford it, the kids were really freaking out.

So they said to Nathan, would you just come in and explain budgeting to these kids. So Nathan goes in and he tries to explain budgeting, and he quickly realized these kids don’t give a sh*t about budgeting, there’s something else going on here. They are so obsessed with getting these things. So with Professor Kasser, he designs this program that led to a really interesting breakthrough, and it’s something people can try at home. You don’t have to do it in this context. And you can do it just as adults, but they did it with parents and they’re teenagers.

They come in, once every couple of weeks, for I think 4 months. The first meeting they had, they just said, “Write a list of everything you have got to have.” They didn’t define that. And people, of course, say like a home, a car, whatever. But quite quickly people would say Nike sneakers. The parents would name expensive things. “Tell me how you would feel if you got these Nike sneakers.” And very rarely, I don’t think any of them were like basketball players where it was like “I need to jump,” or whatever, if that’s the right phrase. Almost immediately they would say, “I’d be accepted by the group. People would envy me.” These insights are just beneath the surface. Who put that idea in your head? Where did you get that idea? Of course, everybody thinks they’re smarter than the ad, but giving people the ability just to see how hollow those junk values are–that was the first part.

The second part was much more interesting and took longer. Then they would have in future sessions–they’d say, “Given that has not actually made you feel better, what are moments in your life when you have felt satisfied, happy, in a flow state? What are things that are meaningful to you?” A whole range of things. Playing sports, playing music. Reading–whatever it was. They said, “How can we build more of that in to your life and less of these junk values? How could you do more of this every week and just meeting–we don’t have these conversations in our culture very often–just meeting once every couple of weeks and checking in with each other.

Actually I managed to play guitar for an hour every day. I managed on Saturday to take my kid to the beach, and we went.

Rogan: That’s going to stifle materialism?

Hari: What it led to, monitored by Professor Kasser, it led to significant shifts in people’s values. They had a significant decrease in junk values, and a significant increase in more meaningful intrinsic values. And we know that that correlates with lower depression and anxiety over time. The weird thing is I sometimes feel like with both of my books–Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections–I sometimes feel like I’m giving people permission to know the thing they already know.


  1. You said it all when you asked “what is it that people will remember on their death beds? What was most important in their lives? Most of the rest is unimportant, just trivial brain clutter. Possessions, consumerism, advertising — all meaningless and intrusive.

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