What you think wealth should do for you determines how happy, or unhappy, it makes you

Money – is it a pile of green paper,  or the holy source of life itself? A new study featuring researchers at Binghamton University, SUNY found that viewing wealth and its accompanying material possessions as a sign of success yielded a much higher rate of life satisfaction than did seeing wealth and its accoutrements as signifiers of happiness.

It comes down to “success materialism” and “happiness materialism.”

“People simply say ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ and just assume that materialism has a negative influence on overall well-being,” said Jenny Jiao, assistant professor of marketing at Binghamton University School of Management, in a release. “But it’s not that simple. There is a real difference between success materialism and happiness materialism.”


To establish the results, Jiao and her research team surveyed over 7,500 German adults. First, they figured out how materialistic each participant’s mindset was. Then, they asked a series of questions about their current and expected life satisfaction, as well as how economically motivated they were.

What they found was that people split into happiness materialists and success materialists. The happiness materialist is the person who believes that wealth and material consumption is the signifier of happiness in life. However, that person is setting themselves up to be unhappy with their current standard of living, as well as life satisfaction. They can also lose satisfaction from other areas in their life (family, friends, etc.)

Those who saw money as a sign of success, however – the success materialist – were more likely to experience general life satisfaction.

You know who they are

Call it the “Bill Gates vs. Wolf of Wall Street” effect. Bill Gates, a classic success materialist, has made piles of money, much of which he gives away as part of his extensive charitable work. Now he travels the world, launching new initiatives that he finds helpful to various part of the world – and he highlights much of it on his blog. To him, money is a way of marking his success, and is a means to allow him to help others.

Jordan Belfort, aka the real “Wolf of Wall Street”, on the other hand, a clear happiness materialist. He started his career as a stockbroker in the late 80s, and soon started his own company, Stratton Oakmont, through which he created his wealth using an illegal “pump and dump” scheme.

Filled to the brim with his ill-gotten money, Belfort spent it lavishly and visibly – a mansion, several sports cars, and drugs, especially Quaaludes. Substances once caused him to crash his helicopter into his own yard and sink his own yacht. His second marriage dissolved soon after. Belfort encouraged his employees to act as recklessly as he did when it came to money – an assistant at his firm was once paid $5,000 to allow some of the company’s traders to shave her head. As for his philosophy of wealth, Belfort once told The New York Post, “It’s easier to get rich quick when you don’t follow the rules.” It certainly is. But was Belfort happy? He eventually spent 22 months in jail.

Money’s not all bad, Jiao said. In fact, for some people, it can be a great propellor – as long as that’s not the only thing in their life. “Your happiness should never rely on money alone, but money can be a tool to motivate you to achieve major milestones in your life, which can make you feel happier in the long run,” said Jiao.

The study is published in Applied Research in Quality of Life. Jiao’s co-authors are: M. Joseph Sirgy (Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University), Grace B. Yu (Duksung Women’s University), Dong-Jin Lee (Yonsei University), Mohsen Joshanloo (Keimyung University), Michael Bosnjak (University of Trier), Ahmet Ekici (Bilkent University), Eda Gurel Atay (University of Oregon) and Stephan Grzeskowiak (Rouen Business School).