The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.
Americans have been on a decades-long march toward greater material rewards, social and professional status, and physical appearance. And there are signs that we have become much less happy as a result.
People pursue life goals that reflect different mixes of what social scientists call intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. "The intrinsic factors are about personal growth and self-knowledge, connections and social intimacy with other people, and wanting to help the human community for altruistic reasons," says Kennon Sheldon, professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. Extrinsic goals, he says, are about "money, luxury, appearance, attractiveness, status, popularity, looks, and power."
People don't always consciously choose their personal motivators or even set out with a clear idea of what they want. Surveys show that people believe intrinsic goals are the most meaningful. But in practice, people in nearly all nations actually pursue extrinsic goals in their life choices. And Americans are at the top of the list in being motivated by extrinsic factors. "Back in the 1960s, many college students felt that developing a life philosophy was the most important thing they could do, and material prosperity was not important," Sheldon says. "Today, those two things have been flipped."
There have been countless social-science studies of how values are linked to personal well-being and happiness. And there are many nuances in the findings. But for the most part, it seems that people driven by intrinsic goals are significantly happier than those motivated by extrinsic goals.
"When people really focus on those extrinsic values, they end up having a worse psychological satisfaction of their needs, and they are less happy as a result," says Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College Galesburg, Ill. In studies throughout the world of people in all income groups and demographics, he says, "it's a fairly robust finding in that it seems to turn up over and over again."
Beyond the perception of greater dissatisfaction and unhappiness, there are physical effects. "We've found that people who are more focused on extrinsic values have more headaches and stomach aches, and that children [in extrinsic-focused societies] experience these things as well, and also have more sleep problems."
Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has studied detailed records of the shifting well-being and cultural values of more than nine million U.S. high school seniors and college freshman over many decades. What she found was a steady increase in stress, mental health problems, and related signs of unhappiness. Young people are becoming increasingly unhappy, and there is a direct correlation between this sustained shift and an equally pronounced trend in the United States toward greater adoption of extrinsic life goals.
"Younger generations are shaped the most by the culture," notes Twenge, who is also the author of the book Generation Me. Today's prevailing cultural norms are the only ones that younger people have experienced, and thus have a big impact. Older people, by contrast, are changed less by current cultural changes because their impact is blended into past experiences.
"Extrinsic values tend to be correlated with narcissism and a high sense of self," she says, leading to emphasis on self-absorbed material pursuits. At the same time, people are convinced they have no choice. "They say, 'We have to be this way because the world is so competitive,'" Twenge says. "They have become convinced that the way to succeed is to become very self-focused, and to get money, fame, and image. However, narcissistic people don't do better," she concludes. "That's a myth."
The pursuit of money and materialism play a central role, especially in America. Kasser says our consumption-driven economy bombards Americans with commercial messages about the desirability of material consumption. Our form of capitalism, he says, is actually hostile to intrinsic values because greater adoption of those values would lead to lower consumer spending.