While many in today's society strive for wealth, the pursuit of money and status appears to actively damage well-being. Conversely, non-materialistic life goals such as spending time with family or volunteering do, it seems, lead to happiness.


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.


Set-point theory

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.

Cash crash: status and wealth does not lead to happiness

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.


Contentment over time

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.


Why materialistic life goals harm you

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.

Status anxiety: success can lead to increased stress at work

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.

RELATED: Why is volunteering important?

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.

Family gains: quality time with family is one key to happiness

Conclusions on non-materialistic life goals

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. 

Main image: Colorbox.com



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I think it's so important to focus on the non-materialistic goals when anyone thinks about setting goals for the future. There are so much more in life than just owning stuff, and it's vital to realise that it's the non-materialistic things that might actually impact your happiness and sense of fulfilment. It can even be applied on new years resolutions and goals for 2021, for those who like doing that. Think of goals that are connected with spending time with family and friends, giving back to your community, helping others around you. ?

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As a student at the end of the 20th century, I caught the dotcom bubble, and for a short time, I thought a career was the pathway to happiness. The dotcom bubble did burst before I finished my degree, and suddenly I was out of well-paying job perspectives. I got comfortable living on a budget and travelling the world - I didn't get any less happy. Looking back at this I am grateful it spared me the detour of exploring possessions and money as the way to happiness. I did, however, make many other detours. ? 
The older I get, the more I value time: time spent with others as well as with myself. 
Non-materialistic life goals like friendship, trust, and solidarity for me lead to a much deeper and stable form of happiness.

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Guest Carlos


I would count me as a non materialistic person, even if sometime i make myself little gifts. But i have never seen myself as someone who tries to buy short term happiness, which doesn´t work anyways. I definetly know some people for which materialism and happiness goes hand in hand, or at least that is what they think. Buying something to make you feel better won´t last longer than leaving that shop or making that purchase and i couldn´t ever describe that feeling as true happiness

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Guest NatureBoy


I've never been hugely worried about material things like how much money I earn or what car I drive, but I did used to think about what clothes I had, my career or what other people think of me. Now, with time, those things have slipped away even further and I'm almost completely non-materialistic. I like to wear secondhand clothes and get furniture from the street. My happiness levels have grown over time, so I do think there could be some correlation :) 

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Guest Karina French


I first had to ask myself what is a materialistic person like? Are they like all those "influencers" we see on Instagram with their nice watches, exclusive sports wear and Gucci bags who are only 'influencing' their own interests? What about values? What do you value when you are only concerned with big pay checks and material possessions? For some people, I think there is a correlation between materialism and happiness. But I think those are the same people who don't often evolve or grow intellectually or spiritually. Or is that me being judgmental? I know very few non-materialistic people today and I find that a little bit sad.

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