The Changing Psychology of Wealth
> 2/5/2007 11:59:36 AM

The majority of the Western world, particularly younger generations, lists "getting rich" as one of their most significant personal goals. But these priorities are far from realistic, as the percentage of those who expect to gain considerable wealth in the near future is exponentially higher than the percentage of those who actually will. Why do we focus so intently on accumulating more money and possessions? Are these desires even in our own best interests? And, most importantly, will money make us as happy as we seem to believe it will? Expanding archives of research suggest not.

According to economic and psychological experts across the board, more money almost always brings with it more stress and leads to decreases in the quality of an individual's physical and mental health. Popular philosophy reasons that money grants one greater opportunity to live the life he or she wants. But independent studies have ironically found that, the more money people earn, the more stress they incur while trying to find the time and opportunity to spend it. It makes sense that the CEO's of major corporations, for all the record-breaking financial packages they currently receive, hold positions of power and responsibility that add up to more tightly managed and anxious lifestyles. But studies find that the social group lodging the most complaints about the stresses of a perceived lack of free time is that of affluent housewives.

As much emphasis as individuals place on increased earnings and rates of consumption, discussing these things in public is still largely taboo, particularly when comparing and speculating on one's income and respective financial status. While friends and neighbors consistently adopt a grass-is-greener approach, wondering in private how their peers manage to afford particularly impressive homes, vehicles and schools, they often believe it inappropriate to bring these issues up in casual conversation, a hesitance largely due to concerns about displaying overly envious or materialistic dispositions. The largely accepted idea that most wealth is accumulated purely due to merit and dedication is also not quite correct, as studies find significant correllations between individual wealth and familial connections, early socioeconomic status and any number of less obvious alternate variables.

A percentage of the public now opts for an alternate philosophy aiming to streamline daily life by minimizing a sometimes counterproductive emphasis on earnings and consumption. Commonly known as "voluntary simplicity," this outlook grows from the belief that personal time and the achievement of individual goals such as improved physical and mental health, creative pursuits and increased devotion to spirituality are more important than the accumulation of wealth. While this may sound like a throwback to the free-living ideologies of previous decades, an increasing number of people across social, geographic and generational  persuasions have adopted the lifestlyes associated with this movement, a set of practices that varies widely from one individual to another.

It would seem obvious that people should pursue the lives that will satisfy them most, but societal pressure and economic necessity lead many to devote a large majority of their time to earning and spending as much money as possible. The most common advice offered by psychologists on this issue: calm down and stop complaining. While one must work hard and earn money to survive, and most, if presented with the choice, would not opt to live in relative poverty, the lifelong pursuit of affluence ultimately does not make for more satisfied individuals. Yet a majority, at least in the Western world, believe otherwise, shaping their lives around these very ambitions. Self-motivation is generally a commendable quality, but people also need to take a moment for realistic reflection on the relative values of wealth and lifestyle. Popular culture may perpetuate the idea of money and fame as the world's most desirable commodities, but reality often reveals a very different truth.

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