Lifestyle

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Fame and fortune

Fame and fortune is no fast track to happiness


Money can’t buy you happiness. Fame is a fickle food. Real beauty is inner beauty.

From a young age, these pearls of wisdom warn us to steer clear of a one-eyed pursuit of fortune, fame and physical beauty. 

So why do so many of us continue to aspire to these things above all else? 

It’s a complicated question, says Dr Emma Bradshaw, post-doctoral research fellow at ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education — but it may have a simple answer. 

“We are told time and time again that these materialistic goals might not be good for us, and yet we continue to pursue them, and I think that’s because they’re seductive,” says Dr Bradshaw, who has been studying the link between aspirations and psychological wellbeing.  

“Popular culture and celebrity influencers place a premium on being beautiful and rich and famous, with lots of money and scores of followers and loads of notoriety. 

“These things are glamorised and have the appearance of being good, and that’s why they appeal to us.”

However, the persistent finding in a growing body of research (see here, here, here, here and here) is that the pursuit of these materialistic goals doesn’t actually lead to happiness; rather, the opposite is likely true. 

Dr Bradshaw’s research drew on multiple studies involving 11,000 participants from several countries, and found the happiest people were those with a desire to make the world a better place. 

Which suggests that altruism — a selfless concern for others and for the community — may pay off in a way that money can't.

“It seems the less self-obsessed we are and the wider our scope of concern for others, the better off we may be,” she says. 

But don’t be so quick to quit your job and devote your life to charity. 

intrinsic goals

One of the more novel findings of this research is that those who strive for intrinsic goals, like contributing to society and helping others, are also driven to pursue extrinsic goals, like wealth and image. 

“This shows that nobody’s life exists in a vacuum … most people have several simultaneous and competing life goals,” Dr Bradshaw says. 

“The happiest people aren’t totally disengaged from materialistic goals — they still strive for them — but this doesn’t negatively affect their wellbeing because their emphasis is on things like personal growth, community giving and helping to improve the world.”

Patterns of aspiration 

In examining the array of life goals that people typically hold, Dr Bradshaw identified three separate profiles with distinct patterns of aspiration. 

The first is a self-focused profile consisting of people who prioritise image, popularity and money above all else. 

“These people are disengaged and highly materialistic, and they tend to be the least happy,” Dr Bradshaw explains. 

Instagram influencers, take heed.

The second group, which places more emphasis on meaningful relationships and personal growth, experiences moderate wellbeing. 

“They have an average level of goal engagement, but their focus is on nurturing their relationships with those closest to them,” Dr Bradshaw adds. 

It’s the third profile that experiences the highest level of wellbeing. 

This group consists of highly driven individuals who have above-average aspirations in all domains, but who prioritise philanthropic goals, like making a positive contribution to humanity.   

“They're saying things like, ‘the most important thing in life is to help others and ask for nothing in return’,” she says. “They tend to see themselves as part of a bigger, wider world.” 

This finding, says Dr Bradshaw, is perhaps the most positive outcome of her research. 

“We happen to have stumbled across a type of person who aspires to make the world a better place, and that person also happens to be happy.”

Giving and receiving

Imagine you live in a house in suburbia, nestled between two neighbours; both engaged in a tenacious quest for wealth. 

The neighbour on your right aspires for riches in order to have a fancier, more beautiful home, spending a bucketful of money on lavish renovations and improvements.  

The neighbour on your left also wants to earn more money, but they’re not too concerned about their home; rather, they want to be able to give more to charity.  

Dr Bradshaw says the latter example shows it’s possible to pursue an extrinsic aspiration (wealth attainment) for an intrinsic reason (giving to charity), potentially attenuating the negative impact on wellbeing.  

“This shows that people can have extrinsic goals and see them as important and valuable and meaningful, and in that case the goal is unlikely to be detrimental to wellbeing,” she says.

It seems that money can buy you happiness, as long as you’re spending it on others. But once again, it’s all about priorities. 

“The key is to ensure that goals like attaining wealth do not take precedence over intrinsic goals,” Dr Bradshaw adds.   

“If, for example, the money becomes more important than the community giving, then it’s likely that will result in less happiness.” 

The same could be said for the musician whose main goal for making music is passion, self-expression and creativity.

If their talent brings them fame and fortune, prompting a shift in focus towards these extrinsic endeavours, they’re likely to experience a loss of happiness. 

In Dr Bradshaw’s words: “If in the end, you become passionless for the music and all you’re doing is pursuing the acclaim and the wealth, in all likelihood, the ability of that goal to contribute to your wellbeing will decrease.” 

The fun is in the striving

There is an added benefit of aspiring for things that are more outward looking: the very act of striving for them tends to promote wellbeing. 

An aspiration to spend more time with family is satisfied while spending time with family, meaning you get instant gratification.

But a quest for wealth will not necessarily bring satisfaction until you’ve reached that goal.

influencers

“Money itself has no functional value other than the value we have assigned to it,” Dr Bradshaw says. “So while your goal to become rich may actually happen, the good feeling you expect to get from it is only possible after you become rich, and even then, having wealth tends not to be clearly linked to happiness.” 

This, she adds, might be a good litmus test for all life goals.

“Ask yourself: Do you get some sense of enjoyment and vitality out of doing it, not just out of getting it?” she says, adding that a positive answer is more likely if the goal is unmaterialistic.  

“With intrinsic goals like personal growth and building relationships and being involved in your community, the getting and the building and the growing is enjoyable. It makes you feel good, and it’s not an end goal.”

Need, or greed?

It’s important to point out that millions of people around the world have no choice but to focus on material goals; however, their motivation is need, not greed

“Some people need to focus on making enough money to feed their families, and those people can’t choose to stop working in a particular job simply because they’re not inspired by their work,” says Dr Bradshaw, who cites studies showing those living in extreme poverty, or in a prison setting, are less likely to find happiness through intrinsic goals.    

“In those types of cases, perhaps striving to make the world a better place is not the kind of objective that’s within their means, and therefore, holding it dear or trying to pursue it might in fact be detrimental to their wellbeing.” 

Which puts the onus squarely on those who do have the means, to focus on goals that have a positive effect on humanity.  

“We live in one of the world’s most prosperous countries and yet we continue to pursue fame, money and beauty above goals like close relationships and community giving,” Dr Bradshaw says. 

“If we are orienting towards these things on top of already being a part of the ‘1 Percent’, I would say that’s probably a case of greed, more so than need.”

The good news is that if more of us can shift our focus towards intrinsic, non-materialistic goals, then we all reap the benefits.  

“If you make the core finding of this research prescriptive, you’re essentially telling people that if you strive to make the world a better place, it’s better for the world … and it’s better for you.” 

Dr Emma Bradshaw is a post-doctoral research fellow at ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. Her research uses Self-Determination Theory to examine life goals and aspirations and their links with wellbeing.

Dr Emma Bradshaw

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G