Professor of Psychology
At Knox Since: 1995
After Professor Tim Kasser appeared in the 2011 documentary Happy, Sarah
Hampson of The Globe and Mail dubbed him a "happiness guru" for his
extensive research into the relationship between consumer society and
psychological health. Kasser's The High Price of Materialism was one of the first scientific books on happiness to show that consumer culture may actually undermine our well-being, and his recent animated video summarizing the book's arguments and suggestions garnered more than 200,000 views in just four months. Perhaps most interestingly, Kasser refuses to keep his research within the realm of academia; he often uses his extensive scientific background to aid activist causes. We recently asked Kasser about his research, his experience at Knox, and his activism.
Why did you decide to become a professor?
I would say it boils down to the fact that I love to teach, to do research, and to be free. There are few jobs that provide so much opportunity for autonomy, for me to follow my interests where they might lead me, and for me to do my job in the way that seems best to me.
What are the essential qualities of a Knox student?
To me, the typical Knox student is someone who is curious, who wants to use knowledge to improve the world, and who cooperates in other Knox students' endeavors.
Do you have any advice for students who are considering studying at Knox?
In your first couple of years here, EXPLORE! There are so many interesting classes and fields and people, and there really is no hurry to get moving on your major right away. I never expected to be a psychologist when I was a first-year student in college -- I ended up where I am only because of such explorations.
What are your current scholarly interests?
Mostly I study the problems associated with materialistic values that favor money, image, and status: these problems include lower happiness, less civility, and more ecological degradation. Many of my studies have also investigated the factors that lead people to prioritize such values, including psychological insecurity and consumer society.
Your most recent book, Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity, suggests that current strategies for solving environmental problems are somewhat ineffectual. How so and what is the alternative?
Here's one example. Sometimes environmental groups make appeals to adopt environmental behaviors on the basis of looking cool or growing the economy. The problem is that such appeals are based in materialistic values, and the research suggests that the activation of materialistic values is associated with caring less about the environment and engaging in more destructive environmental behavior. So such appeals can backfire in the long-run. We suggest instead that appeals towards intrinsic values -- like personal growth, connection to others, helping the world -- will, in the long-run, be more effective. Substantial empirical work that we've reviewed and conducted with the World Wildlife Fund and other organizations supports these conclusions.
What activist organizations are you involved with?
In the United Kingdom, I've done a good deal of consulting with both the WWF and Oxfam. In the United States, I'm on the boards of the Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood and of the Center for a New American Dream.
Why are you so passionate about activism?
I think it is crucial for scientists not to allow their work to sit in journals and textbooks. While knowledge for knowledge's sake is of course important, I've come to believe that the problems we collectively face are too large for scientists to sit by and just hope that their work makes a difference. Instead, I believe that we need to get out of our ivory towers and help those who are working "on the ground" understand the theories and research that can help them to be more effective.