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Does Wanting More Money vs. More Love Affect Mental Health?

New research shows the impact of your priorities upon your whole life.

Two recent pieces of research caught my eye the other day; and each brought to mind a different memory from our cultural past. Both the memories and the two studies strike me as relevant to the challenge of mentally healthy living in this age of the coronavirus.

One association was to a lyric from an early Beatles song; the other, a famous skit from the old comedy legend Jack Benny. The Beatles lyric was, “I don’t care too much for money / Money can’t buy me love,” from 1964’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” in the soundtrack of their movie, A Hard Day’s Night.

The other was a classic bit in which a robber accosted Jack Benny, pointed a gun at him, and said “Your money or your life!” Benny paused for some length of time, as the robber became more impatient, and made the demand again. Finally, Benny replied, “I’m thinking it over!"

Both struck me as relevant to the upheaval many people experience now: So many of us are hunkered down, working from home, dealing with the blurred separations of work and personal life. And unmoored, as well, by the financial uncertainties all of us face.

Consequently, I see many people rethinking or questioning what they’re living and working for, at this point. They wonder, what’s important to prioritize, given the “new normal” that may continue for some time? How can I best deal with a heightened sense of fear; of awareness of the unpredictability of life; of mortality?

To explain, let’s look at the first study, the one that reminds me of the Beatles’ lyric. It looked at people who identify their self-worth with financial success, and how that plays out in the quality of their relationships — including their connection with, or isolation from, other people in their lives. And, how their priority of financial success affects their sense of control over the course of their lives.

The research, described here, found that people who equate their self-worth with financial success tend to suffer in their relationships. A team from the University at Buffalo and the Harvard Business School conducted the research. As lead researcher Deborah Ward points out, “the pressure to achieve financial goals means we're putting ourselves to work at the cost of spending time with loved ones, and it's that lack of time spent with people close to us that's associated with feeling lonely and disconnected."

At the same time, spending more time on work than on relationships results in feeling less in control of one’s life. Moreover, the study also found that people whose self-worth is dependent on their financial success are more likely to experience higher anxiety, increased feelings of pressure, and a higher likelihood of unfavorably comparing themselves to others.

The researchers pointed out that social networks and personal relationships are important for good mental health. As Ward described, "Depression and anxiety are tied to isolation, and we're certainly seeing this now with the difficulties we have connecting with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic. These social connections are important. We need them as humans in order to feel secure, to feel mentally healthy and happy. But much of what's required to achieve success in the financial domain comes at the expense of spending time with family and friends."

The upshot, Ward adds, is further evidence that people who base their self-worth on money are likely to feel pressured to achieve financial success, which is tied to the quality of their relationships with others. The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Truly, then, “money can’t buy you love!”

The other research, related to the Jack Benny skit, looked at what people say about their desire for having more money vs. having more time in their lives. This study examined how those different attitudes — and behavior — relate to overall life happiness.

Conducted by the University of British Columbia and described here, the study was based on 4600 participants. It found that people who said they gave more priority to having time over having more money tended to be happier. That is, valuing your time more than the pursuit of money is linked to greater happiness.

According to lead researcher Ashley Whillans, “People have a stable preference for valuing their time over making more money, and prioritizing time is associated with greater happiness." That is, the findings were based on various ways of measuring happiness and wellbeing, and the association held even after holding constant many other factors, such as people’s salary, education, hours of work, age, and gender. The researchers also measured people’s materialism and the association between happiness and favoring time over money remained after taking this into account. The research was published in Social Psychology and Personality Science.

So, your money… or your life? Your choice — but do contemplate the long-term consequences!

Taken together, the findings of both studies highlight, I think, a gradual reassessment of people’s life values as they struggle to deal with what might lie ahead — for themselves, the people they care about, and for our society. I’m seeing more thoughtful reflection about this since the pandemic began. Perhaps the ultimate hollowness of material and financial acquisition, in contrast to love and connection, is a rising awareness, spurred by the new realities of life, today. For more about that re-assessment in your life, see my recent essay about ways to enhance your well-being during the pandemic.