The Beatles’ classic 1964 song Can’t Buy Me Love finally has some stone-cold scientific research to back up its claim. Researchers from Harvard Business School and the University at Buffalo have found that people who base their self-worth solely on the numbers in their bank account usually end up isolated, lonely, and lacking any meaningful relationships in their life.
The study shows you really can’t buy love or friends
There are only so many hours in the day, and if one chooses to prioritize their career over friends, family, and anything resembling a life outside of the office, it’s a recipe for psychological disaster. If you haven’t seen friends in years or had a meaningful conversation with your spouse in months, no one is going to be all that excited about that new Mercedes S-Class you bought.
These findings contradict so many aspects of typical American corporate life. Employees all over the country are encouraged by their managers to work extra hours and place their employer’s bottom line above even their health. Why? Well, if the company makes money then you make money. The notion that money equals happiness is emphasized in every corner of our culture; from movies and TV shows to the fantasy land of social media influencers.
“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,” says study co-author Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology at UB, in a press release.
“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,” adds Deborah Ward, a UB graduate student and adjunct faculty member at the UB’s psychology department.
Just like everything else in life, there’s a need for balance here. You don’t have to renounce all your worldly possessions and live a life of poverty to be happy, but so many people are constantly chasing that elusive number in their bank account that will change everything. Whether that number is $50,000 or $50,000,000, the people who have actually achieved those lofty financial goals will almost always tell you that reaching their monetary summit wasn’t exactly what they imagined. It’s lonely at the top.
There’s a well-known quote from Christopher McCandless, a man who decided to give up on traditional life and live alone in the woods, that goes “happiness is only real when shared.” It’s a bit dramatic, but the same sentiment holds true here. All the money in the world will get old pretty quickly if you have no one to share it with.
“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,” Ward says. “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 researchers emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with having ambitious financial goals. People get into trouble when they let all the other areas of their life suffer and wither away while they’re off pursuing money. Many people think it will be easy to make new friends or forge new relationships once they’re a captain of industry, but things rarely work out that way. It’s usually much harder to find genuine friendships and not just people interested in that money.
The study’s authors focused heavily on a concept called financial contingency of self-worth. This theory describes people whose entire lives revolve around income. When they’re earning, they feel good. But, when they’re not they feel absolutely worthless.
Over 2,500 people were analyzed for this project. More specifically, researchers looked for relationships and connections between one’s financial contingency of self-worth and factors like spending time with others, loneliness, and isolation. Participants were given a diary for two weeks and asked to write in it each day and describe how they were feeling about the importance of money, as well as their usual socializing habits.
“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,” Ward comments. “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.”
Paul McCartney sings “I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend If it makes you feel alright” in The Beatles’ timeless song. There’s nothing wrong with being able to afford a diamond ring, just remember to make sure you have someone to give it to.
The full study can be found here, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.