Study: Money, Luxury Can't Buy Happiness

The Beatles said money can't buy you love. And now, psychologists say it can't even buy you happiness.

A study of college students in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published today by the American Psychological Association, concludes that money is at the bottom of a list of would-be psychological needs that bring happiness and fulfillment.

In order to be happy, the study subjects most needed to believe they were autonomous and competent, to have self-esteem and to feel a sense of closeness with others.

"I like salary raises just as much as everybody, but I'm sure you can think of people who've left fulfilling jobs to make more money somewhere else and regretted it," says Kennon M. Sheldon, a psychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia and co-author of the study.

At the bottom of the study's list of factors that bring happiness and well being were popularity/influence and money/luxury.

"People who value money, beauty and popularity more so than they value intimacy, growth and community contribution really look a lot less mentally healthy and are a lot more unhappy," Sheldon adds. "If you really are [financially] broke and don't have what you need, you really should take care of that. But a lot of us, we keep looking for more and more when we really already have enough and it should be more meaningful."

Survey of College Students

Researchers asked hundreds of college students in the United States and South Korea for their most satisfying experiences over different intervals of time, then gave them surveys on the nature and emotions of those experiences. Some of the students similarly were asked and quizzed about their most unsatisfying experiences.

"There weren't many money experiences listed," Sheldon says. "But of the few people who did list those sorts of things, we asked people about the moods when they had those sort of things, and the moods tended to be less positive."

The researchers concluded that the most satisfying experiences stemmed from fulfillment of the top four needs of autonomy, competence, relatedness and self-esteem, and the most unsatisfying experiences corresponded to the lack of those psychological needs. Physical thriving, security, meaning and pleasure ranked midway between the top four needs and bottom two, which were popularity/influence and money/luxury.

Self-esteem was the very top need among Americans, and relatedness was tops among the Korean subjects.

Sheldon says past studies have supported his study's conclusions — claiming they have shown that while Americans have been getting richer in recent decades, their emotional well-being has not improved, and that wealthier people generally are no happier as a group than the less well-off.

An October 1997 survey also may support to the idea that people need fulfillment from sources other than money. The survey, for the March 1998 issue of American Demographics magazine, found that 42 percent of Americans would keep their current job even if they won at least $10 million in the lottery, said Nancy Bunn, spokeswoman for Burke Incorporated of Cincinnati, the contractor that conducted the survey. The percentage of would-be lottery winners that would keep their jobs was even higher among respondents older than 45.

Questions About Survey

However, Sheldon admits the new study is limited because it didn't extend beyond college students, who sometimes don't have extensive experience with personal finances and earning a living.

That possible lack of life experience among subjects, as well as other aspects of the study, raises questions with Margaret DeFrancisco, director of the New York Lottery. She points out that money often is connected to the other nine factors the study measured, including security and autonomy.

"Don't they realize that having economic independence allows you to call more of your shots?" she asks, citing her experience with lottery winners.

"What it gives them is a sense of financial security," she adds. "Where you and I budget from month to month, they don't have to do that any more … They always know their bills will be paid."

But she adds that lottery winners often do keep their jobs, and cites the case of a 26-year-old Brooklyn schoolteacher who plans to keep working despite winning $65 million on Nov. 4.

"For her, her job was going to keep her grounded, and it was about relationships and it was about comfort," DeFrancisco says.