It’s a cliché to say that ‘Money cannot buy Happiness’ and that ‘Fame comes with its own price,’ but at the bottom of our hearts we do secretly know that there is more than a grain of truth to it. We are all too aware of the privacy concerns of the celebrities, where they cannot enjoy the little things of daily life, and we can also recognize the billionaire who leads a life on auto-pilot, seldom enjoying the fruits of her labor. And yet, we feel compelled by societal pressure to strive towards goals such as more money and better visibility. For us, alas, things may turn out different!
But science does not go by anecdotes or popular sayings, and clever studies and experiments have been conducted to deconstruct the relationship between striving for wealth, fame and power (or other extrinsic goals as they are called) and its effect on our well-being.
To step back a little, people have all sorts of varied goals that make them tick. For some, it's money in the bank, while for others it’s that elusive feeling of making a difference in the world. Psychologists classify the various goal strivings that people have under two broad headings—extrinsic goals, or goals that do not come naturally or are basic to human need satisfaction like striving for money, fame and power, and intrinsic goals, or goals that are enjoyable and satisfy basic human needs of relatedness, competency etc.
There exists a large bunch of research that shows that extrinsic goal aspirations lead to negative effects on happiness or subjective well-being, while striving for intrinsic goals leads to better and positive mental health outcomes like happiness and well being. Of course, it’s important to stress that people, at the same time, hold both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and it’s the relative importance and proportion of extrinsic to intrinsic goals that we are concerned with. Also, some amount of extrinsic goal striving, say earning enough money to maintain a decent standard of living may be both necessary and conducive to happiness.
One possible reason that extrinsic goals may be bad for your mental health/well-being is that extrinsic goals are typically not self-chosen goals that one is intrinsically motivated to achieve, but are more a result of a feeling of compulsion (fitting in with the society or its expectations of the person) or duty that leaves a feeling of being controlled rather than being in control. You are driven to accumulate wealth rather than you being in the driver’s seat. And that feeling of being controlled and coerced leaves lasting scars in the form of ill-effects on mental health and well-being.
On the other hand, as per SDT, intrinsic goals are predominantly self-chosen and striving towards them makes one feel autonomous and in control, and that leads to better outcomes.
Another reason that extrinsic goals have worse outcomes is that they lead to upward social comparisons—when your goal is to make money or be famous, you typically end up judging your success relative to others. There is indeed an objective measure of what you are worth—whether you are the richest person on the planet or the celebrity who has the biggest fan club, there are things that can be measured, and if there are people there who are high up the ladder, you end up comparing and competing with them leading to negative feelings and affect.
In contrast, if your intrinsic goal is to personally grow so that you can make the fullest use of your potential, you are comparing just with yourself and with no one else. Moreover, if someone is on a much higher path of self actualization than you, ideally it doesn’t de-motivate you or cause you to experience any negative emotions—it only motivates and inspires you to bloom yourself. Similarly, if your goal is to have beautiful relationships, the fact that it is all too subjective and concrete makes it incomparable to how others’ relationship quality is and ideally again it doesn’t bother one if someone else is having a good and successful marriage or other relationship.
Of course these are just a few of the many mechanisms that may be at work that make people striving for extrinsic goals less likely to be happy too. So next time you spend some time to self-reflect, do think and align what goals you want to have and if happiness is really important for you, how you can moderate the importance of extrinsic goals in your life.