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Basing self-worth on financial success leads to greater feelings of isolation and loneliness, study finds

“Feeling that pressure to achieve financial goals means we’re putting ourselves to work at the cost of spending time with loved ones …,” said the study’s lead author, Deborah Ward.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in 2013's "The Great Gatsby."
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in 2013's "The Great Gatsby."
Warner Bros.

People who base their self-worth on their financial success feel pressure to focus most of their efforts on making more money rather than on building their relationships with family and friends, and, as a result, often end up feeling isolated and lonely, according to new research.

“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’s associated with feeling lonely and disconnected,” says Deborah Ward, the study’s lead author and a graduate student in psychology at the University of Buffalo, in a released statement.

Previous research has shown that wealthy people tend to be more focused on themselves and less interested in socializing than those with lower incomes, although why these associations exist has been unclear. This new study, published recently in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is an attempt to answer that research gap.

“In ‘The Great Gatsby,’ Jay Gatsby goes to great lengths to demonstrate his worth and value by hosting extravagant parties to showcase his wealth,” Ward and her co-authors write in their paper. “However, … Gatsby is described at one of these parties as standing by himself, away from his guests. In his quest to prove how financially well off he was, Gatsby in the end stood alone and emotionally separate from others.”

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“The themes of loneliness and isolation that prevail in this classic novel are evidence in real-life, as well,” they note.

A series of studies

The study is actually a series of different experiments involving more than 2,500 participants recruited through various online platforms or from among students taking an introductory psychology course at the University of Buffalo.

All the experiments focused on a concept known in psychology as the “financial contingency of self-worth” — the degree to which individuals stake their self-worth on their financial success.

“Individuals differ in the domains on which they base their self-esteem,” the researchers explain. “Whereas some people derive self-worth from their academic performance, others may base their self-worth on being physically attractive or living up to their moral or ethical standards. People who value money as a basis of self-worth feel compelled to achieve success and to avoid failure in this domain to feel good about themselves and avoid feeling bad about themselves.”

The researchers measured each participant’s financial contingency of self-worth by asking them to rank a series of statements on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The questions included such statements as “My self-esteem is influenced by how much money I make” and “I feel bad about myself when I feel like I don’t make enough money.” The participants answered other questions, as well, including ones about how they spent their time (and whether they felt pressured for time), their sense of self-autonomy, their social connections, and the degree to which they felt lonely or socially isolated. In one of the experiments, the participants were asked to respond to those questions every night for two weeks to see if their answers fluctuated from day to day.

The researchers found — across all the experiments — that “people who based their self-worth on financial success experienced more loneliness and less social connections.”

Furthermore, “the more people staked their self-worth on financial success, the more pressured (i.e., less autonomous) they felt, which was associated with spending less time with close others and feeling more alone and less socially connected,” they add.

Limitations and implications

The study is observational, so the findings show only a correlation, not a causal relationship, between basing self-worth on financial success and greater feelings of loneliness and social disconnection. In addition, all the people in the study are from the United States. The findings may not be generalizable to people living in other cultures.

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Also, as the authors point out, it’s possible that people who base their self-worth on money “may not be particularly distressed about spending less time with family and friends or even recognize that such actions may contribute to feelings of social isolation and disconnection.”

Still, the researchers say their findings are helping to shed light on why that social isolation and disconnection occur. “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 Lora Park, one of the study’s co-authors and an associated professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo.

Perhaps we should all learn from the lesson of Jay Gatsby. “Rather than pursuing financial success as a way to boost self-esteem, Gatsby may have benefited from spending more time with the people in his life that he cared about the most,” the researchers write.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, but the full study is behind a paywall.