Daydreaming about an ideal life, it can be easy to slip into fantasies about wealth — there’s a reason, after all, that “winning the lottery” is the ultimate dream for so many people. The reality of being rich, however, often doesn’t match that dream, with some research suggesting that people who prioritise time are much happier than those who prioritise money.
A new study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin drives home the message that money really isn’t everything. The team finds that “financially contingent self-worth” — self-esteem based on financial success — can leave people feeling lonely and disconnected.
Deborah Ward of the University at Buffalo and colleagues first asked 345 participants to rate themselves on various statements related to financially contingent self-worth, such as “my self esteem is influenced by how much money I make” and “I feel bad about myself when I feel I don’t make enough money”. Next, participants reported how much they felt time pressures in their life, rating statements including “there are not enough minutes in the day” on a scale of one to seven.
Participants then estimated what percentage of time they spent being alone and with others (either working or socialising), and stated how often they felt lonely and isolated and how connected they felt to other people. The team also measured participants’ sense of autonomy — how much control and choice they felt they had in life.
As expected, participants whose self-worth was tied to their financial success reported feeling more time pressure — which, in turn, was related to greater feelings of social disconnection and loneliness. Participants’ sense of autonomy also partly accounted for this relationship: those whose self-worth was more financially contingent reported a lower sense of autonomy, which was related to worse social outcomes.
A second study looked at the same factors on a larger scale, with 940 participants completing the survey. Again, results suggested that financially contingent self-worth was associated with both lower autonomy and worse social outcomes; lower autonomy was also associated with spending less time with family and friends.
In a final study, 246 participants completed daily diary measures at home examining the same concepts as before; this time, however, participants reported how they’d felt or behaved that day rather than in general.
On days when participants reported particularly high financially contingent self-worth, both autonomy and social outcomes were far worse. Those who regularly reported high financially contingent self-worth were also more likely to report lower autonomy and worse social outcomes in general. These people also reported feeling more concerned about their finances.
We already knew that basing self-worth on financial achievements can have pretty negative consequences — financially contingent self-worth can lead to higher anxiety, increased feelings of pressure, and a higher likelihood of unfavourably comparing oneself to others.
The new study suggests that there are also social repercussions: if we believe money is the ultimate meaning of success, it makes sense that we’ll spend more time focusing on work than we will our relationships, that we’ll have less free time and that we’ll therefore feel less in control of our lives than we might want.
It’s important to note that the data is correlational — the direction of cause and effect may not be as straightforward as this. But either way, if your self-esteem is financially contingent, working towards less materialistic forms of validation may be a worthwhile long-term goal.