Money vs. Happiness

  by Joyce Gramza  |  May 13th, 2009  |  Published in All, Brain & Psychology, Featured

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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 Christopher
Bergendorff 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.”

Also on ScienCentral

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




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  4. Skander says:

    September 6th, 2009 at 3:32 am (#)

    I think happiness comes from a combination of things: wealth, love, social status etc.
    There is no hard recipe since everybody values these things differently.

    However, it is possible to find out how much one specific individual values these different aspects through conjoint analysis, a statistical approach to extract one’s real preferences.

    I tried to implement this in a very simple (but rigorous) way online. Please let me know if you find it useful:

    It is fun, but still scientifically accurate (as long as people do take the time to think about the answers).

  5. cjniya says:

    October 7th, 2009 at 10:25 am (#)

    How to gain happiness? Happiness is not the word that print on rubber wristbands. It is easy to gain, but we do not know it. Someone think that fortune could give us happiness; someone said the good-looking is the source for happiness and others consider the success is the main role in the happiness. Let’s talk about the dogs’ life first. There are so many dogs in the city, some of them are the lucky guys and some of them have to wander in the city. Some of the stray dogs could get the blood certificate but their owners do not like them so they just threw these noble dogs to the street. The excellent appearance could not change their tragedy life. For dogs, good-looking is not the key to happiness.
    Then there are some dogs that lead a rich life, their owners are rich and could offer them the high quality food. They have been trained to be the guard dogs and they have to stay outside the house all day long to perform their duties. They do not know the warm of the family, they are rich, but they are just the tool for their owners. And there are some dogs that live in the ordinary families, which could not afford the high quality food or toys for them. But they just consider the dogs as one member of the family and play with it. Every day their owners would have a walk with them, they also talk to them. Don’t you think these dogs are the luckiest and happiest ones? They have a family.
    And in my opinion, that is the key to happiness—- the warmth from the family. No matter how poor you are, no matter how ugly you are, family is the softest place for us. When we feel bad, we could go back home and find the comfort in our parents. We might not be accepted by others, but our parents, our families would behind us and support us forever. The real happiness is having a warm family.

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    December 1st, 2009 at 9:04 am (#)

    Interesting thoughts! I believe it’s not possible to make a general statement on whether money makes people more or less happy. Money comes with a whole set of new elements that may have good or bad impact on our happiness, and depending on how susceptible we are to every one of them, the conclusion will go one way or the other (i.e. different from person to person). I recently made an effort to provide a more comprehensive picture of what these ad- and disadvantages are. I invite you to have a look at Money and Happiness and tell me what you think!
    Thank you, Nick

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    Happiness is a state of mind that really depends how we see the situations in our lives each day. you can have all the riches in the world but still see it as a lonely place.,-*

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