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How new year's resolutions can help combat consumerism, death anxiety

© iStock - Olivier Le Moal
Eric Tegethoff

(Washington News Service) The beginning of a new year is a time for resolutions, offering people a chance to assess their own values and priorities. Some might wish to cut down on how much they buy, and researchers have warned that the drive toward consumerism is closely linked to death anxiety. 

Doctor Tim Kasser, an emeritus professor of psychology at Knox College who researches terror management theory. That theory is based on research from "The Denial of Death" author Ernest Becker. 

Kasser and another researcher decided to test anxiety about death and consumerism, which is core to American culture.

"Terror management theory and Ernest Becker would probably predict that when people are reminded of their own death, they would become more greedy and more desirous of making a lot of money and having a lot of possessions," Kasser said. 

Kasser said the central theory has proved true in research. People who are anxious about their death try to bolster their self-esteem, often by investing deeper into the dominant cultural worldview.

However, Kasser said people can push back on society's materialistic impulses, including through their new year's resolutions. He said critiquing advertisements can help, as well as a focus on personal growth or social goals.

"Those would be the kinds of resolutions which the research shows should promote intrinsic values and should decrease one's focus on materialistic values," he said. 

Brian Burke, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College who also studies terror management theory, said while death anxiety can make people double down on materialism, knowing about these unconscious choices and why we make them can help us supersede them.

"We can override the fact that consumerism is baked into our culture and that we don't have to pick materialistic values, we don't have to choose that we want to get richer in 2023. We can choose to be kinder, to do other things that are much more in line with our more deeply held values," he said.