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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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Money? Thanks, But No Thanks

The single-minded pursuit of wealth may be hazardous to your mental health, says Rochester psychologist Richard Ryan. "Sometimes," he suggests, "getting what you want can be the worst possible outcome."


By Scott Hauser

So ya wanna be a millionaire?

So you want to sit in that hot seat across from Regis Philbin and answer the question that will loft you effortlessly into the seven-digit income bracket that is the milestone of success for many people.

If only the charming host of the hit TV game show would ask you something you know in your sleep--like "What is the alma mater of the University of Rochester?"--then wouldn't life be grand?

Final answer?

Before you start humming "The Genesee" and counting the "full many fair and famous" ways you're going to spend your winnings, you might want to use one of the show's trademark lifelines and seek advice from Richard Ryan, whose work is shedding new light on how the desire for money affects your mental health.

"Sometimes getting what you want is the worst possible outcome," says the Rochester professor of psychology.

O.K., so maybe in the crunch of game show pressure, you wouldn't phone this particular friend.

But recent research by Ryan and his colleagues is providing a wealth of new information about the objectives we set for ourselves. As they titled one of their reports, "All goals are not created equal."

And money, at least in this instance, is the root of much unhappiness.

The Rochester team is finding considerable evidence not only that "money can't buy you love," but that it also can't buy you contentment, or self-esteem, or any other brand of happiness.

More important, Ryan and colleague Tim Kasser '94 (PhD), a former student who is now a professor at Knox College, argue that the single-minded pursuit of wealth (or fame or good looks) is actually hazardous to your mental health.

It's that kind of simple-yet-subtle finding that is capturing attention in psychology's academic circles as well as in the mass media (which have often enough fueled the money mania to begin with). The results have been reported in publications ranging from The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report to Glamour and Fitness.

"On the one hand, it's a confirmation of some age-old wisdom," Ryan notes. "On the other hand, though, it's a little counter-intuitive.

"But," he adds, noting that many Americans are currently enjoying unprecedented financial ease, "a lot of people have wondered why we aren't happier than we are."

Ryan and Kasser offered their first answer to the happiness question in 1993, when they published "The Dark Side of the American Dream: Correlates of Financial Success as a Central Life Aspiration" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The paper (actually a report on three separate studies) compared how two groups of college students and a group of noncollege 18-year-olds weighed the relative importance of several life goals, including attaining deep relationships, realizing personal growth, achieving financial success, and making contributions to the community.

The researchers found that the subjects who scored high in their drive for financial success compared to other goals were also likely to score high on scales of depression and anxiety, and lower on measures of vitality and well-being. Subsequent studies showed the same effect for adults of various incomes and ages.

"Our studies all show that an emphasis on materialism does have a cost," Ryan says. The more emphasis people put on worldly gains, the less happy they appear to be. It's the people who invest in intrinsic, personal satisfactions who are the contented ones.

It sounds as if all the grandmothers who have been warning that the road to happiness leads through the human heart--not through the bank--have finally found academic backing. The only problem with Granny's homespun wisdom here, Ryan says, is that few people take it seriously. "She may be right but no one ever believes her."

Family members are likely to have considerably more influence in other ways, however. That's the conclusion of another study that suggests many materialists may have received an unconscious push during their upbringing.

In this study, Ryan and Kasser (along with Melvin Zax and Arnold Sameroff) found that the teenagers whose mothers were rated, by themselves and observers, as relatively cold and controlling were the ones most likely to place high value on financial success and material goods.

The results, published in 1995, suggest that one reason people may invest in materialism is to overcome emotional insecurity. Ryan quotes media mogul Ted Turner, who once confided that "nobody who has had the success that I have had wasn't driven by a good dose of insecurity."

Ryan theorizes that young people who feel little emotional empathy from their parents may seek worldly wealth as a way of bolstering their shaky sense of self-worth.

The studies by Ryan and others in the Human Motivation Group at Rochester also challenge some long-held notions about the nature of goals and human motivation. Many mental-health models propose that well-being and happiness automatically follow the attainment of deeply held goals.

The Rochester work shakes this commonly accepted theory by showing that success in achieving some goals, such as fame, money, or attractiveness, doesn't necessarily bring gratification. The research was the first to show that the nature of a goal has a great deal to do with the satisfaction its fulfillment may bring--specifically, that people who value and successfully attain material goals are less satisfied with their lives than those who have never lusted after such outward signs of achievement.

"The half-life, the afterglow, of material success is very short," Ryan says.

Another surprise was the strength of the findings and their consistency across cultures. Kasser and Ryan's studies show that even in societies that are not associated with the American Dream, as in Russia or India, symptoms of the dream's darker side are nonetheless evident.

Indeed, the negative effects of materialism have been identified in more than a dozen countries so far.

So, was F. Scott Fitzgerald right when he famously noted that "The rich are very different from you and me"? Or was Ernest Hemingway more on the mark when he agreed with his Lost Generation colleague, but snidely added, "Yes, they have more money"?

Neither, says Ryan.

"The common response from most people is 'Give me a million dollars, and I'll prove you wrong,'" he notes. "But your level of happiness won't change because of the money. Your happiness depends on what that money means to you.

"If you receive a large amount of money, it won't necessarily make you any happier than you are now--it doesn't add or detract," he says. "But if someone could give you a large amount of love, then that would make you happier."

He cites other studies showing that, as a group, big lottery winners aren't smiling a whole lot more than they were before their windfall.

"If you argue that money is all you need for happiness, then those who have won lotteries should show that," Ryan says. "But the results are a pretty mixed bag. Some of those people have wrecked their lives."

Ryan also is well aware that in a media-saturated, consumer-driven society, there is little escape from the constant drumbeat to "buy more."

He can cite alarming statistics: for instance that the average child sees 1.5 million TV ads by age 20, which adds up to 1.5 years spent watching inducements to go out and buy.

And Ryan admits that he, too, is not immune to the pressures of modern consumer culture.

But he hopes the research will help people realize that our values need to be realigned.

"The mental calculus is way off base for a lot of people," Ryan says. "And the trade-offs are huge.

"If you've focused your life on that million dollars, then you are most likely dissatisfied.

"It is the people who are most invested in deep, potent, personal human relationships who are most likely to be happy."

Final answer.


Scott Hauser wrote the "Signs of New Languages" story in the Winter 1999-2000 issue of Rochester Review.

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