Be Careful What You Wish For

by Laura Rowley

A number of years ago, psychologists Richard Ryan and Tim Kasser conducted a series of studies that found people who make the pursuit of money and materialism a top goal in life have lower well-being. They experienced higher anxiety, depressive symptoms, lower self-esteem, and more physical, behavioral, and relationship problems. They also scored lower on indicators testing for vitality (feeling alive and vigorous) and self-actualization. In studies done by Kasser and Ryan and others, the findings were similar across a variety of age groups, income levels, and countries.

Skeptics suggested that lower well-being was a function of the difficulty and stress involved in attaining those goals -- but once people achieved their aspirations, happiness would surely follow. Or, as the actor Johnny Depp told 'Vanity Fair' magazine this month, “Money doesn’t buy you happiness…but it buys you a big enough yacht to sail right up to it.”

A new study conducted by Ryan and two others followed graduating college students who set a range of goals at one- and two-year intervals. The goals were both extrinsic (money, status, personal image) and intrinsic (relationships, health, community involvement). The results confirmed the earlier work: People who sought riches and status -- even when they attained them -- were less satisfied with life than their peers. The research appears in the June issue of 'The Journal of Research in Personality'.

“Those who had the biggest increase in the amount of attainment of wealth, fame, and image actually showed no increase at all in well-being -- zero,” says Edward Deci, psychology professor at the University of Rochester, who co-authored the study with Ryan and Christopher Niemiec. “Even more startling, some of those people showed increases in ill-being, including depression and anxiety.”

Three Fundamental Needs

The researchers hypothesized that pursuing and attaining different goals would lead to different consequences depending on how they satisfy basic psychological needs -- part of a larger concept known as self-determination theory. Says Deci, “We believe there are three fundamental needs that have to be met to be psychologically healthy: relatedness -- to have relationships with other people and feel a sense of belonging and inclusion; to feel competent, like you can effectively manage in the world and have an impact on the world; and autonomy or self-initiation -- that what you do is in line with your basic interests and values, and you’re not doing it just because someone is pushing you around.”

The researchers measured three factors at year one and year two: the degree to which a subject attained their goals, the degree to which well-being rose or fell, and the degree to which he or she experienced satisfaction of basic psychological needs. “What we found," says Deci, "is when people had attained more of the extrinsic goals, they tended not to experience increases in basic needs satisfaction in autonomy, competence, and relatedness -- and that in turn predicted ill-being.”

I suggest to Deci that the exclusive pursuit of intrinsic goals is fine for someone in their early 20s -- but a bit idealistic for people who have mortgages to pay and (in my case) three college tuitions on the horizon. I love to write, but there have definitely been a few less-appealing assignments over the years in which money was the main attraction.

“It’s important to have enough money to live comfortably and pay the mortgage and educate your kids -- we all need to do that,” Deci replies. “It’s not necessarily the case that pursuing monetary goals is bad for you -- it’s when those goals get out of balance with other intrinsic goals. When it becomes really important to amass a lot of wealth -- and you put all your time and attention into that -- it crowds out the other goals. It’s about keeping in touch with what your true values are.”

Inviting Social Comparison

Aside from the crowding aspect, extrinsic goal-seeking tends to invite social comparison. “If you’re really focused on wealth, fame, and image as indicators of your worth, what you’re going to be doing is looking around at how you compare to other people because they may have more of that -- a fancier car or a bigger house,” Deci explains.

And the faster you acquire stuff to keep up with the Joneses, the faster you adapt to it, and the more you want new stuff -- also known as running on the “hedonic treadmill.” Deci says it goes back to the fact that important needs aren’t being met.

“The pursuit of extrinsic goals has a lot to do with an underlying anxiety or insecurity that comes from a lack of deep satisfaction of basic psychological needs,” says Deci. “Superficial gratification comes from putting a good image out to the public and getting the recognition and feeling of belonging from wealth and a beautiful house and fancy cars. The substitute for having meaningful relationships is people who think you have a cool car. That puts us in a position where we are forever needing to get more and more things to get a sense of security in ourselves.”

So there is a chicken-and-egg aspect of this work: Anxious, insecure people tend to pursue extrinsic goals in the first place because they are anxious and insecure. But Deci says the research controls for the personalities of respondents because it measures change in the amount of goal attainment from year to year as well as change in well-being: “Looking at change in longitudinal way suggests we’re really talking about the attainment (of extrinsic goals) leading to the ill-being.”

It’s worth noting that it’s not money itself that makes you miserable -- it’s pursuing it directly, instead of pursuing a passion that happens to make you rich. But even that can be problematic if it’s the only thing you pursue, says Deci: “It’s nice to be passionate about work, of course, but are you really having meaningful relationships, are you really developing as a person in ways that are meaningful for you? It’s trite to say, but when it gets to end of life and you’re reflecting back, what were the things that were deeply important? It’s easy to lose track of them over the short-term.”


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