Can money buy you happiness?

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published September 19, 2019

Key Takeaways

Seeing wealth and material possessions as a sign of success, rather than a sign of happiness, may lead to significantly higher life satisfaction, according to a team of international researchers who published their results in Applied Research in Quality of Life.

To better understand this, it is useful to define and understand not only the effects of materialism—which are not all bad—but also the differences in the mindset we have towards our material possessions.

“People simply say ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ and just assume that materialism has a negative influence on overall well-being,” said study co-author Jinfeng Jiao, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Marketing, Binghamton University School of Management, Binghamton, NY. “But it’s not that simple. There is a real difference between success materialism and happiness materialism.”

Dr. Jiao explained these two very different mindsets. Simply put, “happiness materialism” is the belief that wealth and material possessions are signs of a happy life. “Success materialism,” on the other hand, is the belief that wealth and material possessions are signs of success in life.

“We work so hard over the course of our lives. We want to make money and we want to have a better life, but what actually gives us satisfaction with life? Is it wealth and material possessions, or is it what those things are a sign of?” she queried.

To study the effects of these differing approaches to materialism on personal happiness, Dr. Jiao and colleagues surveyed 7,599 German adults, in whom they assessed “materialism” mindset, current satisfaction in life, expected satisfaction in their future lives, and economic motivations.

They found the following:

  • Having a ‘happiness materialism” mindset increased respondents’ dissatisfaction with their current standard of living
  • The higher the respondents’ dissatisfaction was with their current standard of living, the lower their current life satisfaction
  • The happier respondents were with their lives currently, the happier they would be in the future
  • A “happiness materialism” mindset was predictive of dissatisfaction with the non-material aspects of life, such as leisure, health, family and work life
  • Dissatisfaction with these non-material aspects in life was predictive of dissatisfaction with respondents’ current lives overall
  • Having a “success materialism” mindset had a significant, positive predictive effect on economic motivation
  • In turn, economic motivation positively impacted respondents’ anticipated satisfaction in their future standard of living
  • Dissatisfaction with their current standard of living negatively impacted respondents’ anticipated satisfaction in the future
  • Anticipated future satisfaction with their standard of living positively impacted respondents’ future satisfaction in life

All in all, how respondents viewed their material achievements played a large role in how satisfied they were in life. Respondents who saw their material possessions as measures of success were more satisfied in life now and anticipated that they would be happier in the future. Those who viewed material possessions as a measure of happiness were more likely to be dissatisfied, both now and in the future.

It’s important to note that what constitutes success is purely subjective. And that’s why someone who may not own a yacht or a Lamborghini can still consider themselves successful.

“’Happiness materialism’ seems to be the culprit—it is associated with dissatisfaction with standard of living, which in turn influences present and future life satisfaction in an adverse manner. ‘Happiness materialism’ also seems to further detract from subjective well-being by taking much time, energy, and money away from other life domains that make an important and positive contribution to present life satisfaction. That is, when individuals become too focused on material acquisition and possessions they may not well attend to satisfying human developmental needs as manifested in other life domains such as family life, work life, health, and leisure,” wrote the authors.

“In contrast, ‘success materialism’ contributes positively to life satisfaction. It does so by directly heightening individuals’ economic motivation, which in turn elevates anticipated future satisfaction with standard of living. Increased levels of anticipated future satisfaction of standard of living play a positive role in increasing future life satisfaction,” they concluded.

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