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Do People Want Riches to Buy Stuff or Status?

In The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook argues that, in some respects, happiness has actually fallen slightly in the last few decades. This is despite the fact that material conditions have improved significantly during the same time.

To many people, this finding is confounding. If we’ve already exceeded the amount of money needed to “buy” happiness, why do we still want more? Why do so many middle-class westerners feel poor, even though (in historical terms) they are incredibly wealthy?

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The real reason, I believe, most wealth is acquired is to gain status. You want to spend money, not just to obtain the material objects, but to signal to everyone else that you have the power to obtain them.

The desire to own doesn’t come just from intrinsic wants, but from what our friends want, and what society tells us we “should” have.

People tend to ignore the status benefits of wealth. Most obviously because seeking status is a low-status behavior. Anyone seen grubbing for fame or new toys to impress their friends becomes less impressive.

As a result, I believe many people delude themselves that they want material possessions for intrinsic reasons. This is an unconscious effort to seek material wealth for purely status-related motives, and at the same time, not appear interested in grubbing for status.

The Onion did a perfect satire of this conflict. The professionals seeking technology blatantly for status is funny to us precisely because status-seeking is distasteful, and nakedly displaying it undermines the very goal it attempts to fulfill.

People say a price bottle of wine has a more sophisticated taste than the cheap stuff. They argue that a diamond ring has beauty and that the huge television set is necessary for their enjoyment of a sitcom.

Maybe those things are true, I don’t know. But maybe, they are at least partly masks for our deeply buried greed for status, that if exposed nakedly, would defeat itself.

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