Book Review: Shiny Objects

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Roberts, James A. Shiny objects : why we spend money we don’t have in search of happiness we can’t buy. HarperOne, 2011.

Two weeks ago, I transformed an empty bedroom in our home from a hideout for a teenager to a welcoming space for a 40-something couple seeking treatment at Duke’s Cancer Center.  As I boxed up the novelties and memorabilia, I wondered “Why would anyone ever buy this stuff?”  In his new book, Shiny Objects, James A. Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor, explains why we buy so many material goods when we know that happiness cannot be purchased.

Author Roberts begins his book by discussing American consumer culture, where goods and services are valued because they confer a higher social status and project a desired self-image. Yet as people earn more and spend more, they are no happier.  Once basic needs are met, there is no additional happiness with additional purchases.  People quickly adapt to a higher level of consumption and any satisfaction quickly dissipates.  More spending and consuming often follows and people find themselves on the “treadmill of consumption.”   Even worse, earning and spending money takes time away from children, friends and spouse, and it is in nurturing these relationships that truly makes people happy.

Roberts describes American materialism in a number of contexts.  He shows how the American Dream – the opportunity to better oneself though hard work and free choice – evolved historically into a consumer culture.  He provides insights into the psychology of consuming and explains how materialism may be genetic.  He includes a chapter on the prosperity gospel, which teaches that donations to a church will lead to financial returns for the giver.

At the end of the book, Roberts calls for readers to live more simply, freeing up our time and money and strengthening relationships with family and friends.  Even though we live in a consumer culture and material world, we are not doomed to pursue wealth and materials possessions.  We can choose a more meaningful life.  This topic has been covered in other excellent books that have crossed my desk in recent years, but Roberts’s book seems especially accessible.  He writes with warmth and humor, including a quiz in each chapter to enables the reader to evaluate his/her own relationships with consumer culture and personal happiness.  Recommended.

© Reviewer: Meg Trauner & Ford Library – Fuqua School of Business.
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