An oldie but a goodie from education guru and all around anti-judgement icon Alfie Kohn from The NY Times back in 1999, entitled “The High Price of Affluence.” You might say the insights here are fairly self-evident – money doesn’t buy happiness, yawn, i.e. the ultimate cultural truism that no one functionally believes – but where Kohn always shines is in the connection to the larger issue of a goal-oriented mentality, what we would call The Law. Money itself is clearly not the issue, it’s what it represents: an attempt to attain happiness via extrinsic means. Kohn has a preternatural understanding of Mark 7, namely, that when it comes to human well-being, externals (almost) never dictate internals, that it’s always the other way around. That what matters is motivation not results, the heart not the hands, and this is – gasp – a universal factor. Moreover, “striving” itself often makes the problem worse, as it constitutes a fundamental denial of our position before God. Or you might say, if you view life as a measurement-scenario, and your bank account as the measure, not only will you never have enough cash (J. Rockefeller), you will always be afraid of losing what you have (along these lines, if you haven’t read the amazing Heinrich Bornkamm quotes about Martin Luther in the comments of the “Are You Breaking Bad?” post, do yourself a favor), ergo depression and anxiety. The Gospel, of course, begins with the pronouncement that “it is finished,” that eternal well-being has already been established and there’s nothing left to contribute to your existential plight. It begins (and ends) with liberty, in other words, to make or not make your fortune, independent of personal redemption:

The adage that money cannot buy happiness may be familiar, but is easily forgotten in a consumer society. A much more persistent and seductive message is beamed from every television screen: Contentment is available for the price of this car, that computer, a little more getting and spending.

Over the last few years, however, psychological researchers have been amassing an impressive body of data suggesting that satisfaction simply is not for sale. Not only does having more things prove to be unfulfilling, but people for whom affluence is a priority in life tend to experience an unusual degree of anxiety and depression as well as a lower overall level of well-being.

Likewise, those who would like nothing more than to be famous or attractive do not fare as well, psychologically speaking, as those who primarily want to develop close relationships, become more self-aware, or contribute to the community.

Professors Ryan and Kasser said their studies provided a look at the “dark side of the American dream,” noting that the culture in some ways seemed to be built on precisely what turned out to be detrimental to mental health. Americans are encouraged to try to strike it rich, but, “the more we seek satisfactions in material goods, the less we find them there,” Ryan said. “The satisfaction has a short half-life; it’s very fleeting.”

Moreover, the deterimental effect of extrinsic goals seems to hold regardless of age or even level of income: A preoccupation with money bodes ill regardless of how much money one already has. The effects also appear not to be limited to any one culture. Kasser and his associates have now collected data from subjects in 13 countries, including Germany, Russia and India. The fact that pursuing wealth is psychologically unhelpful and often destructive, he reports, “comes through very strongly in every culture I’ve looked at.”

Affluence, per se, does not necessarily result in an unsatisfying life. Problems are primarily associated with “living a life where that’s your focus,” Ryan said.

Another study by the same researchers, not yet accepted for publication, found that college students who were already “relatively high in the attainment of appearance, financial success and popularity” were nevertheless “lower in well-being and self-esteem.” Those who aspired to affluence also had more transient relationships, watched more television and were more likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and other drugs than were those who placed less emphasis on extrinsic goals.

Apart from its obvious implications for a culture that thrives on material gain, this whole line of research raises questions about the proclivity of some psychologists to analyze the dynamics of what is often called goal-directed behavior while, in effect, ignoring the nature of the goal.


Likewise, it challenges homespun advice to “follow one’s dream,” whatever it may be. These data strongly suggest that not all goals or dreams are created equal.

It is not entirely clear why a poor psychological profile would go hand-in-hand with a quest for extrinsic goals. It may be that unhappy people are more likely than others to chase after money and fame. Conversely, the very act of chasing after money and fame may reduce one’s sense of well-being, perhaps because “it makes you ignore the goals that could lead you to have more satisfying experiences,” Kasser speculated. Yet a third possibility is that extrinsic goals and poorer psychological health are symptoms of something else that is amiss.