Harvard researchers just found a surprising downside of being financially successful

Although money can guarantee stability to a certain degree, a new study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests the throughline might be murkier than initially believed.

According to the researchers at the University of Buffalo and Harvard Business School, securing affluence comes with a unique throng of psychological stressors.

The experiments that inspired the study’s conclusion suggested the desire to maintain financial success can take a major toll on one’s social life. Over time, this process sees individuals isolate completely from others.

“Although people may think that money improves one’s relationships, research suggests otherwise. Focusing on money is associated with spending less time maintaining relationships and less desire to rely on others for help. But why does focusing on money relate to worse social outcomes?” the authors write in the new study. “We propose that when people base their self-esteem on financial success—that is, have financially contingent self-worth—they are likely to feel pressured to pursue success in this domain, which may come at the expense of spending time with close others. Consistent with this idea, results of four cross-sectional studies (N = 2,439) and a daily diary study (N = 246) revealed that basing one’s self-worth on financial success is associated with greater feelings of loneliness and social disconnection, and this may be related to experiencing less autonomy and spending less time with family and friends.”

Social consequences of financially contingent self-worth

The authors began by analyzing 2,439 participants over the course of five experiments. Each focused on the correlation between the financial contingency of self-worth and emotional health.

Participants were given diaries to report daily updates, for two weeks. In it, they interrogated themselves about how important wealth was to them, as well as the frequency to which they saw their friends.

“We saw consistent associations between valuing money in terms of who you are and experiencing negative social outcomes in previous work, so this led us to ask the question of why these associations are present,” study author Deborah E. Ward, said in a press statement. “We see these findings as 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.”

Consistently, those who conflated their self-worth with their degree of wealth began to exhibit destructive social behaviors to secure desirable financial outcomes.

In some cases, friends pulled away, and other times the subject themselves withdrew in service of career objectives.

“Feeling that 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 are associated with feeling lonely and disconnected,” the authors added in a university release. “When people base their self-worth on financial success, they experience feelings of pressure and a lack of autonomy, which are associated with negative social outcomes.”

These elements have been somewhat compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, job security and class status have been thrown into flux as a result of national commercial shutdowns.

Without routine social interactions and a sense of stability from one’s place of work, it becomes easier to lose sight of values epicentral to emotional wellness.

“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,” the authors continued. “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 study, titled, Can’t Buy Me Love (or Friendship) was authored by Deborah E. Ward, Lora E. Park, Kristin Naragon-GaineyAshley V. WhillansAshley V. Whillans, and Han Young Jung.