Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Are some goals better than others?

There is some evidence that not all goals are equal - the content of goals have effects on well-being as well as the reasons why they are pursued (i.e. whether they are pursued for autonomous reasons or because of external pressure or control). Some research findings suggest that goals that people find inherently interesting and rewarding to pursue have more positive effects on the well-being of individuals than more materialistic goals such as wealth, image and fame (Kennon Sheldon, Richard Ryan, Edward Deci and Tim Kasser, ‘The independent effects of goal contents and motives on well-being: Its both what you pursue and why you pursue it’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30 (4), April 2004).

It is hardly surprising that the findings of psychological research would support the observations that wise people have been making for thousands of years about the futility of seeking happiness through accumulation of wealth and material goods. A good example is the following quote from Epicurus: “Nothing satisfies the man who is not satisfied with a little” (Fragment 69).

What else do the findings of this research tell us about the goal of financial success?

  • As is well known, researchers have found that people with higher incomes generally have higher subjective well-being than people with lower incomes.
  • The positive effect of household income on overall life satisfaction has been found to be stronger than the negative effect of the goal of financial success (Carol Nickerson, Norbert Schwarz, Ed Diener, Daniel Kahneman, ‘Zeroing in on the dark side of the american dream: a closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success’, Psychological Science 14 (6), November 2003).
  • The deleterious consequences of the objective of financial success diminish over time if household incomes rise and are less evident for people with high incomes. However, people with a materialistic orientation tend to have a lower satisfaction with family life, regardless of family income (See Nickerson et al).
  • The findings do not challenge to the proposition that people can obtain a lot of satisfaction from achieving financial success as a means to such goals as, for example, supporting the education of their children. Some research suggests that functional financial goals such as educating one’s family are a means of fulfilling the psychological needs of competence, autonomy and relationships. (See: Stephanie M. Bryant, Dan Stone, and Benson Wier, “Articulating a Positive Relationship to Money,” paper presented at the Designing Information and Organizations with a Positive Lens Conference, November 11–12, 2005).

    Some people have argued that market societies that motivate production of goods and services with profits and wages encourage materialistic attitudes and promote unhappiness. I concur with Will Wilkinson’s response that “capitalist consumer societies – and markets in general – don’t require materialistic monomania in order to operate. They require only that people want things, for good reasons or bad, and are willing to trade whatever they have produced to get them” (In Pursuit of Happiness Research, p 33).

    My conclusion is that although the content of goals is important, the choice of goals is inherently part of the process of self-direction. People are likely to flourish to a greater extent if they pursue goals that they can endorse at the highest level of reflection. It might be possible to induce people to pursue goals using external pressure or control but they will not flourish unless they endorse the goals they pursue.

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