The dark side of the American dream?

“From the Archives”, first published in the Digest 24.11.03.

Do you dream of untold wealth, fast cars and plasma screen TVs? Did you know that research suggests people who strive for financial success tend to be less satisfied with their lives?

Nobel prize-winner Daniel Kahneman and colleagues wondered whether this negative effect would disappear if people’s income were taken into account. Like any other dream, might the goal of financial success be harmful only for those that fail? Humanist psychologists would disagree, arguing that seeking happiness through wealth is destined to failure.

Kahneman and his team had access to the financial aspirations of 12,894 American students when they began university in 1976, together with information on their financial status and levels of life-satisfaction collected between 1995 and 1997.

Contrary to the predictions of humanists, Kahneman found that, overall, the richer people were, the higher their life-satisfaction. And although, overall, dreams of wealth at university predicted subsequent reduced life-satisfaction, this relationship disappeared with financial success. Furthermore, the enhanced life-satisfaction that came from financial success was unaffected by whether or not individuals had dreamt of wealth when they were younger.

The message, it seems, is that striving for wealth and failing will make you miserable. Financial success, meanwhile, is likely to make you happier whether you dreamt of it or not.

Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E. & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing in on the dark side of the American Dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Science, 14, 531-536.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.