People Who Base Their Self-Worth on Financial Success Feel Lonelier and More Isolated-Study

People whose main barometer of success is how much money they have in the bank often end up feeling lonelier or more isolated than others, a new study finds. 

Previous research have suggested links between those who base their self-worth on financial success and feelings of loneliness in everyday life, but a new study by the University of Buffalo and the Harvard Business School establishes a clearer picture of why this is so.

“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, associate professor of psychology at UB and one of the paper’s co-authors, in a statement published in the University of Buffalo (UB) website.

“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, a UB graduate student and adjunct faculty member in UB’s psychology department.

Ward however says that it’s not financial success or the desire for money per se that’s problematic; rather, it’s when people decide that their self-worth is contingent on how much money they have that they start equating financial success “as being tied to who they are as a person.” It’s a concept that psychologists identify as Financial Contingency of Self-Worth.

“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,” says Ward. “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.”


Ward and her co-authors cite a classic literary character to emphasize their point.

“In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby goes to great lengths to demonstrate his worth and value by hosting extravagant parties to showcase his wealth,” news site MinnPost quotes Ward and her co-authors 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.”

According to the UB statement, the research involved more than 2,500 participants over five different studies that looked for relationships between financial contingency of self-worth and key variables, such as time spent with others, loneliness and social disconnection. 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 researchers found 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.”

“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,” the UB statement quotes 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.”

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The MinnPost story however cautions that 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. Also, all the people in the study are from the United States, which means the findings may not extend to people living in other countries or cultures.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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