Frank Capra’s beloved Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is a story of a man desperate for money who attempts to end his life by stepping off a bridge so his life insurance policy can be paid out. He is ultimately stopped by a guardian angel, who shows him what his community would be like if he was never born.
With the help of the angel, George Bailey realizes that performing public service, instead of maximizing wealth, made his life more enriching than the “richest man in town.”
The enduring popularity of the film in Canada and the United States is a reminder that, despite the love of great sales and gift-giving over the holidays, there may be more meaningful ways to enjoy the holiday season.
As reported in a 1992 Journal of Consumer Research paper by academics Marsha Richins and Scott Dawson, people who highly value possessions and their acquisition tend to score lower on scales that measure life satisfaction, in comparison to people who prize interpersonal relationships over financial security, even after controlling for income.
Materialism not only comes at the cost of your wealth, but also your identity. Canadian philosopher Jan Zwicky wrote that choosing to live under the premise that “money is the answer” limits your range of possible behaviours, and German-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann wrote that “status quoism” — basing “how to live, with whom, where, what to do, and what to believe” on what most people around you do — is an abdication of autonomy.