Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology systematically examined the results from over 90 studies and found that overall well-being suffers when one pursues extrinsic goals over intrinsic ones. These results may be used to support meaningful changes in education so that goals are pursued for their intrinsic value, resulting in happier and healthier individuals.

The American Dream is known internationally as the opportunity offered to people in the United States to achieve success. It is marketed as the foundation of the American economy and often emphasized in educational systems. If you work hard enough, you can become president or CEO of a billion-dollar company.

The American Dream is often focused on extrinsic goals like material wealth, career success, and fame. Modern research has called into question the benefits of chasing extrinsic goals over intrinsic ones, such as self-development and being helpful towards others. Emma L. Bradshaw and colleagues set out to mine the published research for universal truths about the consequences of pursuing the American Dream.

The research team conducted a meta-analysis of 92 reports (6 theses, two book chapters, and 84 peer-reviewed journal articles) that explored different life goals and well-being. Specifically, they utilized studies that examined the relationship of intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations to well-being and the relationship of intrinsic and extrinsic aspirations to ill-being. (Ill-being is understood as the opposite of well-being — a lack of happiness, safety, or thriving.)

A meta-analysis is a statistical technique that combines the results of multiple studies on a particular research question or topic in order to obtain a comprehensive and more precise estimate of the overall effect size or relationship between variables. It is a systematic approach that allows researchers to synthesize and integrate findings from multiple studies, providing a more robust and reliable summary of the available evidence.

In their current meta-analysis, Bradshaw and colleagues analyzed data from 62,359 individuals.

Their findings indicate that when individuals prioritize extrinsic goals, they tend to report lower levels of subjective well-being, psychological well-being, physical health, and prosocial behavior. This was a consistent finding regardless of age, culture, or the tools used by researchers to measure these characteristics.

These findings are meaningful for those pursuing the science of well-being. This analysis indicates that when one prioritizes extrinsic goals over intrinsic ones, there may be far-reaching consequences for self-esteem, health, happiness, and social connectedness.

Bradshaw and colleagues acknowledged there were some limitations to their findings. The studies chosen for meta-analysis used cross-sectional data; therefore, cause and effect cannot be established. Longitudinal studies would be beneficial to support their conclusions. Second, the study focused on a narrow range of life goals and didn’t consider the methods people use to pursue their goals. Finally, their studies were all originally published in English; consequently, they may have omitted some important cultural nuances.

This study demonstrates that a shift in what the American Dream is understood to be would likely be beneficial for most Americans. The meta-analysis provided evidence for the universal wellness costs of prioritizing extrinsic over intrinsic goals. According to the research team, “When setting goals for oneself, or indeed for others, focusing on money, beauty, and influence at the cost of growing and caring is psychologically detrimental. Individuals, groups, and institutions should consider framing goals in intrinsic terms if their pursuit is to serve the common good.”

The study, “A meta-analysis of the dark side of the American dream: Evidence for the universal wellness costs of prioritizing extrinsic over intrinsic goals,” was authored by Emma L. Bradshaw, James H. Conigrave, Ben Steward, Kelly A. Ferber,  Philip D. Parker, and Richard M. Ryan.


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