One accusation made against economists, and particularly those of us strongly inclined to support free markets, is that we only, or mostly, care about material things. This totally misunderstands economics and how economists understand the world. In fact, the truth is just the opposite. For good economists the material world is secondary to the subjective perceptions of human beings, and what makes us wealthy is not more stuff per se, but rather the increasing satisfaction of our wants–whatever they might be.
What creates value–and makes people better off–is not physical things but the human mind. People are made better off not by physical goods per se, but by having their wants satisfied. We have wants that need physical goods to satisfy them, but we also have wants that can be satisfied by friendship, love, or a religious experience. Economics cares only that people have wants. For economic analysis, it doesn’t matter what those wants are. Material goods are a potential means to satisfy them, but material wants are far from our only ends.