Financial success can lead to loneliness, struggle maintaining relationships


A deeper look into how achieving financial goals impacts friendship reveals that the drive to be successful can easily result in the opposite socially.


BUFFALO, N.Y. — Previous research finds that when people base their self-worth on their financial success, they often feel lonely in their day-to-day lives. A recent study demonstrates this isn’t the entire picture when it comes to career-minded individuals. Researchers at the University of Buffalo and Harvard Business School say the stress to keep succeeding cuts many people off from the world around them.

“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 study co-author Lora Park in a university release.

“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,” adds Deborah Ward from the University of Buffalo.

Social connections keep us ‘mentally healthy, happy’

The findings show social networks and personal relationships play a major role in maintaining positive mental health. Preserving those connections while trying to achieve challenging goals is key.

“Depression and anxiety are tied to isolation, and we’re certainly seeing this now with the difficulties we have connecting with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Ward. “These social connections are important. We need them as humans in order to feel secure, to feel mentally healthy and happy. But much of what’s required to achieve success in the financial domain comes at the expense of spending time with family and friends.”

Ward says financial success or the desire to make money in and of itself is not problematic. What is problematic is what psychologists call the Financial Contingency of Self-Worth. When someone’s self-worth is tied inexorably to money, they see their financial success as being part of who they are as a person. The degree to which these individuals succeed financially has a direct impact on how they feel about themselves. They feel good when they’re doing well, but feel worthless if they’re financially insecure.

The impact of putting financial success ahead of friendship

The report analyzes over 2,500 participants in five studies looking for relationships between the Financial Contingency of Self-Worth and emotional factors like loneliness. The studies include daily diaries following participants over a two-week period. They assess how people feel about the importance of money and the time they spend engaging in social activities.

“We saw consistent associations between valuing money in terms of who you are and experiencing negative social outcomes in previous work, so this led us to ask the question of why these associations are present,” Ward says. “We see these findings as further evidence that people who base their self-worth on money are likely to feel pressured to achieve financial success, which is tied to the quality of their relationships with others.”

The study authors add their research is the only the beginning of an effort to uncover the Financial Contingency of Self-Worth. While they don’t have the final answer, there is evidence that these pressures affect mental health.

The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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