The pursuit of wealth, fame and beauty can make you unhappy

The American Dream, the belief in the possibility that everyone in the US, regardless of background, can achieve success through hard work and determination, has always attracted attention. But what does "success" mean? Is it wealth, fame and beauty – the so-called extrinsic goals? Or is it perhaps the pursuit of personal growth, relationships, health, and giving to the community – the intrinsic goals?

Exploring Extrinsic and Intrinsic Goals

In a recent meta-analysis, Emma Bradshaw et al. (2023) attempted to answer these questions. The researchers looked at 30 years of studies on the effects of extrinsic and intrinsic goals on well-being. According to self-determination theory, the most influential theory of motivation in psychology, the intrinsic and extrinsic content of our aspirations have different consequences for our well-being. Pursuing intrinsic goals, such as personal growth and health, is said to promote our well-being. On the other hand, pursuing extrinsic goals, such as wealth and fame, could harm our well-being. But is this always the case?

The Results: Intrinsic Goals and Wellbeing

The researchers collected data from 105 studies, resulting in a total sample of 70,110 participants. They found that the pursuit of intrinsic goals was generally positively associated with well-being. That means that people who pursue these goals tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. In addition, they found that intrinsic goals were negatively associated with well-being, meaning that pursuing these goals may help reduce negative feelings and experiences.

The Results: Extrinsic Goals and Wellbeing

As for extrinsic targets, the findings were a bit more complicated. When they looked at all the different ways extrinsic goals can be pursued, they found no significant effect on well-being. But when people mainly pursued extrinsic goals, at the expense of intrinsic goals, they found this had a negative impact on well-being and was positively associated with unwellness.

What Goals We Choose Affects Our Well-Being

The results of this research have important implications for how we can shape our goals and ambitions. It suggests that the pursuit of wealth, fame, and beauty, at the expense of personal growth, relationships, and health, can ultimately make us unhappier.