The AtlanticThe Atlantic

Money may buy happiness. But not as much as you think.

By Michael Mechanic

13 Apr 2023 · 6 min read

Editor's Note

Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you a Land Cruiser. The Atlantic looks at how consumer culture encourages us to dream of the happiness that a new purchase will bring.

For more than a half century, researchers at UCLA have conducted a massive annual survey of incoming college students titled “The American Freshman: National Norms.” One part of the survey asks students to rank 20 life goals on a scale from “not important” to “essential.” Most are lofty aspirations such as becoming a community leader, contributing to scientific progress, creating artistic works, and launching a suc­cessful business. Surveyed in 1969, freshmen entering four-year colleges were most interested in “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” (85 percent considered it “essential” or “very important”); “raising a family” (73 percent); and “helping others who are in difficulty” (69 percent). Ten years later, freshmen opted for “being an authority in my field” (74 percent), followed by “helping others” and “raising a family.”

But something shifted amid the Reagan Revolution, which deregulated Wall Street, revamped the tax code, and set the nation hurtling toward levels of wealth and income inequality unseen since before the Great Depression. By 1989, a new priority had taken over the survey’s top position, and has appeared there on and off ever since: money. Indeed, the No. 1 goal of the Class of 2023, deemed “essential” or “very important” by more than four in five students, was “being very well off financially.”

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