Thursday, July 09, 2009

Why Looks, Money, and Fame Just Don’t Cut It

Last May Newswise reported on a study that demonstrated an inverse relationship between good looks, lots of money, and the admiration of others on the one hand and one’s sense of happiness on the other. Really? Yes, really.

While pursuing goals generally has a positive impact, this is not true for all goals according to the study’s author Edward Deci, professor of psychology and the Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester. Chief among the goals that don’t result in positively contributing to a satisfying life are those of attaining wealth and fame.

The research paper appeared in the June issue of the Journal of Research in Personality (you can get all the details about methodology there). Here’s the bottom line of what it found while tracking 147 alumni from two universities during their second year after graduation. The study confirmed that the more committed an individual is to a goal, the greater the likelihood of success. But unlike previous findings, this analysis showed that getting what one wants is not always healthy. This is contrary to the historical psychology theory that says if you value goals and attain them, wellness will follow. That’s not the case if you consider the content of the goals according to lead author Christopher Niemiec, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University.

He says the study shows reaching materialistic and image-related milestones actually contributes to ill-being; despite their accomplishments, individuals experience more negative emotions like shame and anger and more physical symptoms of anxiety such as headaches, stomachaches, and loss of energy. Wow. The wisdom found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs wasn’t wrong after all. But wait, there’s more, the authors go on to say that by contrast, individuals who value personal growth, close relationships, community involvement, and physical health are more satisfied as they meet success in those areas. This latter group experiences a deeper sense of well-being, more positive feelings toward themselves, richer connections with others, and fewer physical signs of stress. Wow. Again the Old Testament Solomon and the New Testament Jesus had it exactly right.

Of course, the researchers feel their findings support the Self-Determination Theory developed by Deci and Richard Ryan which states that well-being depends in large part on meeting one’s basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In their opinion, “intrinsic aspirations seem (Niemiec’s word) to be more closely related to the self, to what’s inside the self, rather than to what’s outside the self.” Well, we’ll take issue with that another day. For now, let’s be thankful for their finding that striving for wealth and praise does little to satisfy deep human requirements.

The authors also suggest that for this younger set of career people, time devoted to extrinsic pursuits, like working long hours, often crowds out opportunities for psychologically nourishing experiences, such as relaxing with friends and family or pursuing a personal passion. They say craving money and adoration can lead to a preoccupation with “keeping up with the Joneses”. And what’s wrong with that? Well, behind this striving to ‘keep up’ are upward social comparisons that breed feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. Really. Solomon and Jesus both hinted at this, but you’ll have to find that out for yourself as you dig into their works.

Finally, the researchers indicate that the benefits of caring relationships and hard-earned skills are lasting while the thrill of extrinsic accomplishments fade quickly. As they would ask, “do you still rave about your last salary raise or promotion?” I hardly think so.

My advice – get smart, and pursue what really counts in life. Anyway, that’s how this presentologist sees it. In the meantime, keep on ortho-thinking and don’t forget to follow me on .

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