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April 8, 2013

Money vs. Happiness

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It's commencement time, and psychology researchers say those valedictory speeches about how success isn't measured in riches are much more than mere platitudes. As this ScienCentral News video explains, they've found new evidence that "American Dream" achievements like wealth, fame and image are not the keys to happiness.
[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Chelsea McGuire, future doctor, Ashley Anderson, future educator, Asher Perzigian, healthcare industry and
Edward L. Deci, University of Rochester
Produced by Joyce Gramza-- Edited by ChristopherBergendorff Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc

Goals and Gains

Graduating from a topnotch institution makes the chances good that seniors like future doctor Chelsea McGuire, future educator Ashley Anderson, and soon-to-be healthcare industry analyst Asher Persigian will be able to attain whatever life goals they set.

And all of these graduating University of Rochester students agree that success is not defined by fame or fortune.

Fulbright scholar McGuire will spend a year in the Dominican Republic helping to fight the HIV epidemic before attending medical school. She wants to make healthcare, which she views as "the basic prerequisite to anything," more efficient and accessible. "That’s not necessarily a very glamorous job, or particularly high on the fame and fortune context, but that I think would make me happier than anything else," she says.

Anderson, president of the campus Black Students' Union and an accomplished dancer, hopes to provide educational opportunities to all, regardless of "special needs" or other labels. She thinks by being smart and planning ahead, she can have financial security without being materialistic. "I'm a woman of faith," she says. "No money amount would be able to give me what God can give me and what I can give to other people."

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And even though Perzigian is looking forward to experiencing the fast-paced corporate world and culture, "we can't keep that up forever," he says, adding that he had several job offers and took the one that would take him back near his hometown and family. "Without people… to share your life with, I really don't see the point," he says.

But a look around at American culture is a quick reminder that not everyone can stick to those principles, points out Edward Deci, a psychology professor at their alma mater and an expert in "Self Determination Theory," or "SDT." SDT, a relatively recent psychological theory, involves understanding our basic psychological needs and how satisfying them - or not—affects our psychological health and well-being—or ill-being.

"The lure of the dollar bill is pretty big, and you can find yourself in situations where you end up putting a lot more emphasis on those than you initially thought you would have," Deci says.

Now Deci and his colleagues have evidence that not only pursuing, but actually attaining what he calls "American Dream-type" goals can work against psychological health and well-being.

And while anyone struggling to pay bills in this tough economy might wish we had spent more time chasing the dollar, Deci says the study confirms that intangible achievements like loving relationships and families, personal growth, and contributing to our communities really do boost our psychological health and well-being.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Deci, graduate student Christopher Niemiec, and fellow University of Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan surveyed graduates of four-year colleges and universities for two years following graduation, as the young adults began to attain their goals. The surveys measured attainment of so-called "intrinsic" goals like relationships and personal growth, as well as "extrinsic" (ie, "American Dream") goals like money and prestige.

The surveys also probed for indicators of both psychological health and well-being, and for separate indicators of psychological ill-health or ill-being.

Analyzing the results showed that attaining intrinsic goals like loving relationships and contributing to one's community contributed strongly to the subjects' psychological well-being and also worked against ill-being.

But attaining extrinsic goals like wealth, fame and image do nothing for one's psychological well-being and actually contribute strongly to ill-being. "Their attainment of those goals does not help their happiness, satisfaction, vitality and wellness at all," says Deci. "It contributes zero to that. And the more unsettling finding is that it actually contributes to their greater ill-being, which is to say more anxiety and depressive symptoms."

Deci notes that it was already well-known that pursuing wealth, fame and image can lead to stress and ill-health, but the idea that attaining them could be detrimental is counterintuitive, as well as counter to entrenched American cultural values.

"People have always argued … 'Well, it might be hard for them to be pursuing those, but once they've attained the goals then they're really going to experience this great sense of wellness and happiness and satisfaction," he says.

But this new evidence "argues pretty strongly against the widely-held notion that if I just get rich and famous I'd be so happy."

Deci points out that this study was limited to a sample of well-educated people in their twenties, and used self-report surveys. He says future studies will look at different populations like retirees and possibly also include objective measures of the different variables.

Meanwhile, Deci advises the class of 2009 to take careful stock of their goals and values on a continuing basis to keep them in balance.

"We want to have a life that’s comfortable, we want to have children and be able to send them to college and so forth, and that takes a certain amount of money and resources to do that," he says. "The real issue is to what extent do you let that dominate your life?"

For the record, we tried to tempt the three seniors we interviewed by asking them if they wanted the top of the line Blackberry, or a certain status-y brand of bag, but there were no takers.

"I actually own a Coach bag, but it was a gift from a family member," says Anderson. "So it really doesn’t make me feel any happier than if I just had a regular bag. A bag is a bag, a shoe is a shoe, a hat is a hat, and that's just how I am."

This research will be published in the Journal of Research in Personality, June 2009 and was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Elsewhere on the Web:

National Well-being Indicators

More on SDT Theory and anti-materialism from psychology professor Tim Kasser, UR'94

       email to a friend by Joyce Gramza

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