If I Were A Rich Man...

Psychologists show how pursuit of material wealth and pursuit of happiness are not the same.

Findings

We all know the saying that "Money can't buy happiness." Recent psychological research has not only shown the truth of this maxim, but has begun to demonstrate that when people organize their lives around the pursuit of wealth, their happiness can actually decrease.

Research on how happiness relates to material wealth by psychologists Edward Diener, Ph.D., and David Myers, Ph.D., clearly documents that people are happier if they live in wealthy rather than poor nations. However, once individuals have enough money to pay for their basic needs of food, shelter, etc., money does relatively little to improve happiness. Further, increases in neither national economic growth nor personal income have much effect on changes in the personal happiness of citizens.

Psychological research goes further than this, however, by showing that people who "buy into" the messages of consumer culture report lower personal well-being. According to research by psychologist Tim Kasser, Ph.D., individuals who say that goals for money, image, and popularity are relatively important to them also report less satisfaction in life, fewer experiences of pleasant emotions, and more depression and anxiety. Similar results have been demonstrated for a variety of age groups and people around the world.

In addition to these problems with personal happiness, research suggests that strivings for affluence also hurt social relationships and promote ecologically-destructive behavior.

Significance

We live in a culture which continually bombards us with advertising messages suggesting that "the good life" is "the goods life." But such messages bear a false promise, because research shows material wealth will not bring happiness and focusing on materialistic pursuits often diminishes personal well-being. Further, the emphasis that many governments place on increasing economic growth seems ill-advised, given the fact that such materialist pursuits exact enormous ecological costs at the same time that they do little to improve citizens' happiness.

Practical Application

  • Some individuals and groups have been working to develop means of measuring national progress which are not based solely on economic growth and the maximization of profit. For example, the government of Bhutan (a country nestled in the eastern Himalayas) has been sponsoring work on measuring "Gross National Happiness" and the U.S.-based organization Redefining Progress has developed a "Genuine Progress Indicator" to account for problematic aspects of economic growth.

  • Attempts are being made to limit and regulate children's exposure to the media and advertising. For example, both the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have made policy statements concerning the problems of marketing and media in youth.

  • A growing number of individuals have begun to pursue alternative life styles - a movement known as Voluntary Simplicity - which helps them to live outside of the consumer mainstream and pursue healthier values. Many in this movement are trying to maximize their "time affluence" rather than their material affluence, in the recognition that increased free time will bring them greater happiness and meaning in life.

Cited Research

Diener, E., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2002). Will money increase subjective well-being? Social Indicators Research, Vol. 57, pp. 119-169.

Kasser, T. (2002). The High Price of Materialism. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Myers, D. (2000). The funds, friends, and faith of happy people. American Psychologist, Vol. 55, pp. 56-67. 

Additional Sources

Elgin, D. (1993). Voluntary Simplicity. New York: Morrow.

Levin, D., & Linn, S. (2004). The commercialization of childhood: Understanding the problem and finding solutions. In T. Kasser & A. D. Kanner (Eds.), Psychology and Consumer Culture: The struggle for a good life in a materialistic world (pp. 213-232). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Schor, J. (1992). The overworked American: The unexpected decline of leisure. New York: Basic Books.

What makes people the happiest? Researchers say it's not money or popularity (APA press release)


American Psychological Association, March 26, 2004