Americans have been on a decades-long march toward greater material rewards, social and professional status, and physical appearance. And there are signs that we have become much less happy as a result.
People pursue life goals that reflect different mixes of what social scientists call intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. "The intrinsic factors are about personal growth and self-knowledge, connections and social intimacy with other people, and wanting to help the human community for altruistic reasons," says Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. Extrinsic goals, he says, are about "money, luxury, appearance, attractiveness, status, popularity, looks, and power."
People don't always consciously choose their personal motivators or even set out with a clear idea of what they want. Surveys show that people believe intrinsic goals are the most meaningful. But in practice, people in nearly all nations actually pursue extrinsic goals in their life choices. And Americans are at the top of the list in being motivated by extrinsic factors. "Back in the 1960s, many college students felt that developing a life philosophy was the most important thing they could do, and material prosperity was not important," Sheldon says. "Today, those two things have been flipped."
There have been countless social-science studies of how values are linked to personal well-being and happiness. And there are many nuances in the findings. But for the most part, it seems that people driven by intrinsic goals are significantly happier than those motivated by extrinsic goals.
"When people really focus on those extrinsic values, they end up having a worse psychological satisfaction of their needs, and they are less happy as a result," says Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College Galesburg, Ill. In studies throughout the world of people in all income groups and demographics, he says, "it's a fairly robust finding in that it seems to turn up over and over again."
Beyond the perception of greater dissatisfaction and unhappiness, there are physical effects. "We've found that people who are more focused on extrinsic values have more headaches and stomach aches, and that children [in extrinsic-focused societies] experience these things as well, and also have more sleep problems."
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has studied detailed records of the shifting well-being and cultural values of more than nine million U.S. high school seniors and college freshman over many decades. What she found was a steady increase in stress, mental health problems, and related signs of unhappiness. Young people are becoming increasingly unhappy, and there is a direct correlation between this sustained shift and an equally pronounced trend in the United States toward greater adoption of extrinsic life goals.
"Younger generations are shaped the most by the culture," notes Twenge, who is also the author of the book Generation Me. Today's prevailing cultural norms are the only ones that younger people have experienced, and thus have a big impact. Older people, by contrast, are changed less by current cultural changes because their impact is blended into past experiences.
"Extrinsic values tend to be correlated with narcissism and a high sense of self," she says, leading to emphasis on self-absorbed material pursuits. At the same time, people are convinced they have no choice. "They say, 'We have to be this way because the world is so competitive,'" Twenge says. "They have become convinced that the way to succeed is to become very self-focused, and to get money, fame, and image. However, narcissistic people don't do better," she concludes. "That's a myth."
The pursuit of money and materialism play a central role, especially in America. Kasser says our consumption-driven economy bombards Americans with commercial messages about the desirability of material consumption. Our form of capitalism, he says, is actually hostile to intrinsic values because greater adoption of those values would lead to lower consumer spending.
Extrinsic goals may not promote optimal happiness and well-being, but that's not to say money isn't associated with substantial amounts of life satisfaction. Money buys things we need and value. How much money we make compared to other people--our relative income--is strongly related to satisfaction and happiness. "Money buys happiness for a person, and quite a lot of it," says British economist Andrew Oswald. "The evidence suggests that people care intensely about their relative income. This shows up in brain-scan evidence and in happiness equations."
If having money makes us happy, spending lots of it, by contrast, does not seem to do so. When we buy an expensive item, it turns out, our joy in having it fades over time. This trait, given the name "hedonic adaptation" by social scientists, helps explain why having lots of possessions may provide us some sense of satisfaction but not lasting happiness. In recent years, the rising field of behavioral economics has uncovered additional insights about differences between the perceptions that motivate us and the actual results of our efforts. As it turns out, people are often very out of touch with what they really want. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to money.
Psychologist and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman breaks the idea of subjective well-being and happiness into two components: the emotional well-being shaped by everyday experiences, and a person's cumulative life evaluation. Many researchers find that life evaluation does not benefit from money, beyond having enough to meet basic needs. Kahneman disagrees, and finds that higher income improves a person's life evaluation even among people who are already wealthy.
However, he found in research that there is a ceiling of about $75,000 a year in how much people need to achieve their maximum amount of emotional well-being. People making more than this amount of money did not feel they gained additional happiness, the research found. "More money does not necessarily buy more happiness," he said. "But less money is associated with emotional pain." Oswald, by contrast, thinks Kahneman's findings warrant more research.
If the things we think are important (intrinsic goals) are not reflected in how we actually behave (extrinsic goals), what should we do? Kasser and others point to a small but growing effort, mostly in Europe, to stop associating our well-being solely with economic growth. The notion of Gross Domestic Product, he says, should be expanded or replaced with a measure that includes physical and mental health plus other measures of well-being and happiness.
It could also help for people to spend more time thinking about their goals, how well they are meeting them, and whether they are happy with their choices. Kasser has developed an Aspiration Index that uses 40-odd questions to help people understand where they are on the intrinsic-external value scale.
A simple exercise developed nearly 50 years ago called the Cantril ladder is still widely used as an accurate self-evaluation to help people think about their life goals and measure their well-being. It asks people to assume that there's a ladder with steps numbering from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The best possible life would be a 10 and the worst life a zero. Which rung are you standing on right now? Which rung do you think you will be standing on in five years?
More From US News & World Report