Happiness of nations

People who seek fulfilment only in material well-being are not satisfied, says the shrink, looking at the 'dark side' of the American dream

Published: Friday 15 October 1999

do you believe that money cannot buy happiness? Or that contentment cannot be equated to the acquisition of a new car or a flat closer to the sea? And do your friends laugh at your fantastical notions? Scientists have reached some conclusions that you can wave in the face of the sceptics.

Over the past few years, psychiatrists have been trying to scientifically prove that satisfaction and happiness cannot be equated with the bank balance. They have been gathering data painstakingly to support the belief that contentment is not for sale. They conclude that not only does 'craving for more' prove to be unfulfilling but people for whom affluence is the only priority in life tend to experience an unusual degree of anxiety and depression. And this extends to relationships as well. Those who aspire to nothing more than being famous or attractive do not fare as well as those who primarily want to develop close personal relationships.

Data shows that neither income nor attractiveness is strongly correlated with a sense of well-being. Richard Ryan and Tim Kasser from the University of Rochester, usa , claim that there is more to the issue. In a recently published paper, the researchers sketch an increasingly bleak portrait of people who value only 'extrinsic goals' like money and beauty ( Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin , Vol 25, No 5).

Ryan and Kasser say such people are not only more depressed than others but also have more behavioural problems and physical discomfort, as well as score lower in levels of vitality and self-actualisation. This pattern is remarkably consistent. The Rochester study essentially looks at the 'dark side of the American dream'. And this culture turns out to be very detrimental to mental health. Americans are encouraged to try and strike rich. But the researchers note that "the more we seek satisfaction in material goods, the less we find them there". "Satisfaction has a short half-life; it is very fleeting," says Ryan. Sounds familiar?

The researchers say the detrimental effects of seeking only extrinsic goals seem universal, irrespective of income -- whether the person is after the first million or nth million -- or age. It is not even limited to culture. Ryan's group gathered data from subjects across the world, including Germany, Russia and India. Pursuing wealth, regardless of whether it is the East or the West, is psychologically unhelpful and even destructive. Says Ryan: "The findings come through very strongly in every culture I looked at."

Significantly, it appears that affluence per se does not result in lack of satisfaction. Problems crop up when affluence becomes the focus of life. The negative psychological feelings depend upon the extent to which people believe they are already on the way to attaining extrinsic goals.

In a study yet to be published, Ryan's group looked at over 300 young people in the us and Russia. The psychologists found that lower levels of mental health were found not only in people who wanted to make a lot of money but also in those who thought that they were likely to make it.

In another group of young people, they found that college students already on their way to attaining financial success and popularity had lower self-esteem than those leading a normal life. Those aspiring for only affluence had more transient relationships, watched more television and were more likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs than those who placed less emphasis on extrinsic values.

The researchers feel that pursuing goals that reflect genuine human needs, like wanting to feel connected to others, turns out to be psychologically more beneficial than spending one's life trying to impress others or to accumulate trendy clothes, fancy gizmnos and the money to buy them.

The family background of people who laid a great emphasis on extrinsic values was also investigated. The psychologists discovered that 18-year-olds, for whom financial success was especially important, turned out to be those who had mothers who were not very nurturing. When parents are 'cold and controlling', write the researchers, "their children apparently focus on attaining security and a sense of worth through external sources."

But it is not clear whether psychological profile would go hand in hand with a quest for extrinsic goals. It may be that unhappy people are more likely than others to chase money and fame. Conversely, the very act of chasing money and fame may reduce one's sense of well-being because "it makes you ignore the goals that could lead you to have more satisfying experiences", says Kasser. Yet another possibility is that extrinsic goals and poorer psychological health are symptoms of something else that is amiss.

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