Why Money Doesn’t Buy Meaning

Sometimes psychologists do try to tackle the big questions. We might not be willing (or equipped) to speculate about the  true meaning of life, but we can try to determine what might lead more people in one nation to say “yes” to one simple question:

Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?

We can predict your answer based on what country you live in – but probably not in the way you think. If you hail from Togo, Senegal, or Ecuador, you almost certainly answered yes, despite the relative poverty of your home country (as measured by the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP); if you come from certain wealthy countries – France, Spain, or Japan, for example – then the odds of a “yes” drop to just 3 out of 4. These are not bad odds, to be sure, but they do highlight how people in wealthier nations will say their lives are less meaningful.

This is not meant to evoke any “poor little rich nation” sympathy; people in wealthy nations report more satisfaction with their life, placing themselves closer toward living the “best possible life” than those in poorer nations, but those satisfying lives seem to lack a central purpose.

Why might life in a wealthy nation feel less meaningful? It’s not likely that the mere presence of money makes life seem empty of purpose. The search here is for mediators, aspects of life that are influenced by wealth, and in turn influence how people perceive their lives. Some candidates are:

  • With great wealth, comes more education. Education (one hopes) broadens our perspective on the world, and trains us to think critically. Taking a critical eye to our own lives, with a view toward what people in other countries live like, might lead us to conclude that our satisfying lives are a little small in the grand scheme of things.
  • With great wealth, comes declining fertility. While Americans are ready to get up in arms about whether children bring happiness to their parents’ lives, the notion that children bring some sort of purpose with them seems less controversial. When you have fewer children, or none at all, you will have to look for your meaning in life elsewhere, and this is more likely to be the case in a richer country.
  • With great wealth, comes a weaker social network. Oh, yes, we have Facebook, but it may be doing more harm than good as far as loneliness is concerned. Meanwhile, I have lived at my current address for almost a year and have done little more than wave at any of my immediate neighbors, and it would require an emergency for me to consider knocking on any of their doors. Such disconnectedness robs us of at least one potential source of meaning in life, our local communities.
  • With great wealth, comes distance from religion. This is the preferred theory of the authors of today’s study. When life is a struggle to survive, we happily embrace the answers provided by religion; and those answers provide a framework for how our own life experiences – bitter as they may be – fit into a broader scheme of the universe. It’s only when we have leisure time (and brains in tip-top shape from good health care and nutrition) to question religious tenets that we find ourselves searching for our own meaning.

The case for religion’s role in a nation’s search for meaning is quite strong. Both wealth (GDP) and religion (how many people agree when asked “Is religion an important part of your daily life?”) on their own can predict how much of the population say their lives have meaning. When they are combined in the same analysis, though, all the explanation seems to be done by religion; whatever role wealth plays in a nation’s sense of living meaningful lives, religion seems to explain.

This is not to say that religion explains everything about how a nation’s wealth influences whether people think their lives have meaning; when you get down to the level of looking at individuals rather than nations, wealth sneaks back in as a player in its own right:

If two individuals were equally religious, those living in wealthy nations were less likely to report having meaning and purpose in their lives than those living in poor nations (p. 427)

And now those alternative mediators of education, fertility, and social support come back to play. The study authors did their best to dismiss these possibilities, but some were more successfully dismissed than others. Social support, in particular, does not seem inclined to go gentle into that good night. Although statistical analyses show that social support doesn’t explain the role religion plays – it’s not about having the support of a church community that gives life meaning, but something about religious belief itself – social support does seem to contribute something of its own to our belief that our lives have meaning. Exactly what isn’t clear, because there were some inconsistencies in the analysis (one test suggests that more social support is linked with less meaning in life, another that it leads to more) that were ignored or inadequately explained.

Overall, though, we have here a decent case that the very economic improvements that make us more satisfied with our lives also steer us away from cultural religious beliefs, which leave us adrift when it comes to finding meaning. Religion is certainly not the only path to meaning, but it is one that can more easily apply to masses of people. With that path faded out – by a nation’s wealth, or by more personal factors – we must find an alternative meaning, in service or family or our careers, and some of us have more success at this than others.

Oishi S, & Diener E (2014). Residents of poor nations have a greater sense of meaning in life than residents of wealthy nations. Psychological science, 25 (2), 422-430 PMID: 24335603


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