We've all heard of the saying 'Money can't buy happiness', but is it actually true? After all, so much misery in this world seems to be as a result of lacking finances. Studies suggest that there may well be something in this presumption that you don't need money to make you content.
In his paper Life Goals Matter to Happiness, Bruce Headey looks at the issue of subjective well-being, or SWB, and the influences it has on both materialistic and non-materialistic life goals. He concludes that people with non-materialistic life goals report greater contentment in life than those who pursue more materialistic aims.
Many studies looking at these issues use a concept called the set-point theory as the foundation of their approach. The set-point theory holds that it's difficult, if not impossible, to alter your levels of happiness. It claims your ability to be happy is fixed early on in life. Increasingly this theory has come into question and under examination.
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There are various factors that can play into a person's ability to create happiness. With therapy and other treatments or lifestyle changes, it's possible to work through past situations.
Another reason why this theory is questionable is that it presumes that people are not able to significantly improve their happiness levels. With this last consideration, the mind is powerful and can overcome a lot with concentrated effort. It's well worth taking a second look if this theory is applicable.
A current long-running German study looks at SWB and examines how both 'zero-sum goals' and 'non-zero sum goals' affect happiness. Zero-sum goals meaning life goals that concern status or wealth. And non-zero sum goals meaning non-materialistic life goals that concern family life or altruistic activities.
The study started in 1984. This has allowed researchers to build a broad picture of how the respondents' happiness levels have changed over a lengthy period. As with all long-term studies, this change provides a great field of evidence. In fact, more than any other study on the subject.
“People with non-materialistic life goals report greater contentment in life than those who pursue more materialistic aims.”
The paper concluded that people who placed a greater emphasis on non-zero sum goals such as family life experienced greater contentment in life than people who preferred more materialistic zero-sum goals. In fact, the pursuit of money and status appeared to actively damage happiness. Which may or may not come as a surprise.
It's likely that dedicating one's energy to career and financial goals could only come at the cost of family life. So, why this split between these two life goals? Why so much emphasis on material gain when it only causes damage to a person? As is often said, you can't have it all.
So the question is: why do less or non-materialistic goals make people happier than materialistic ones? The probable explanation is so-called 'status anxiety'. This means that once you've achieved a higher level of status, it's no longer enough: you feel pressure to live up to that status, maintain your lifestyle, and indeed to accomplish more. Materialistic goals create a spiral of higher goals, more work stress and less connection.
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So when you're awarded a promotion and accompanying pay rise, you have to spend money on a more expensive car. You have to move to a better neighbourhood. And, in return, you need to keep working hard to pay for it, in order to maintain this status level. You may begin socialising with people in a higher income bracket and feel the need to present the same lifestyle as them, regardless if your income is adequate or not.
And if your stress levels rise, you feel that you cannot give up your high-paying career because you would have to reduce your lifestyle. Once you achieve a perceived high status, it's extremely difficult to abandon it: the upward spiral effect.
“Materialistic goals create a spiral of higher goals, more work stress and less connection.”
Non-materialistic life goals, on the other hand, are only beneficial to yourself and others. We can feel a deep sense of satisfaction from volunteering our time without any financial reward. We see that helping others creates meaning and meaning creates contentment. This generosity creates the feeling that we're making a difference.
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A harmonious family life has an undeniably positive effect on our well-being. This ensures that we spend our leisure time in comfortable surroundings and with people we enjoy being around. We choose to have a family and close friends. As opposed to the people we are obliged to spend our working day with and may not enjoy their company.
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It's not intrinsically bad to have ambition because this can motivate us. But this ambition should be used in healthy and productive ways. The conclusion to gather from this is that the pursuit of materialistic goals should not be at the expense of family life and non-materialistic goals. The sensible solution is to find a balance between looking after your financial needs and those of your family and looking after your 'soul'.
“We see that helping others creates meaning and meaning creates contentment. This generosity creates the feeling that we're making a difference.”
The sensible solution is to find a balance between looking after your financial needs and those of your family, while at the same time not forgetting to look after your 'soul'. This three-way balance takes ambition and motivation to achieve. However, the rewards are well worth the effort. High-quality deep relationships are the basis of a happy life.
Having a reasonable degree of financial security is essential. Anyone worried about how to meet their bills will guaranteed to be stressed. But material goals should not dominate one's life. As this will only create the aforementioned upward spiral.
There's so much to gain from dedicating a fair portion of your time to your family, friends and local community. As these create good, deep connections and relationships, and those are the keys to a happy life, as the Harvard study found. Striking the right balance between material life goals and non-materialistic life goals is essential for creating and maintaining happiness in your life. ●
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