Do People Want Riches to Buy Stuff or Status?

Money, Success, Fame, Glamour

We’re richer, but we aren’t happier. At least, that’s what the research tells us.

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?

Because People Don’t Want Stuff

To me, the answer seems obvious. Because, beyond our minimum material conditions for survival, people don’t really want money as a means to buy more stuff.

Instead, most accumulate extra wealth because it buys them status. And, unfortunately, status is a zero-sum game, which means that as the wealth of a society increases, the net gains on happiness are zilch.

The Pet-Unicorn Effect

Sure, people want things, but unfulfilled wants aren’t really a detriment to overall happiness. I’d like to be able to fly, ride a dragon and have a pet unicorn, but not being able to fulfill those fleeting desires doesn’t make me feel bad. The mental space for wants is infinite, so to an extent, we already accept it will never be filled.

Also, some blame could rest on advertisement saturation. Being constantly reminded of the luxuries we can’t afford could upset us. But, I think this effect is minimal.

When I see something outside the reach of my current income level, I’m not yearning to own it. It’s only the things that I have a realistic chance of purchasing soon that draw me. It’s like the pet-unicorn, nice to have, but which of us can really afford a private jet, anytime soon?

People Want to Buy Status

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.

Should We Just Admit We Want Status, or Forego it Completely?

There is a fundamental conflict here:

  1. We want status.
  2. We also don’t want to be seen (or believe that we are) people who want status.

Some people would argue that the solution is to wipe yourself free of the need to obtain status. That this greed for respect, adulation and recognition is unnecessary. We should become like Howard Roark, and face public humiliation to pursue a deeper meaning. Or become like Tyler Durden and hit rock-bottom to free ourselves of society’s glare.

Frankly, I think this is just the original problem rearing its ugly head again. In this case, however, the second urge is simply overwhelming the first. Your intrinsic distaste of status-seeking behavior is overwhelming your also strong urge to seek status.

Another solution is to accept that people want status, and to pursue it zealously. Work night and day to build a billion dollar company, network with celebrities, do everything you can to earn fame and praise. Of course, you could lie about these motives when asked, but still pursue them secretly.

One other solution seems to be the one most people pursue: search for status doggedly, but carefully delude yourself that every action you take for status, is actually pursued for other, nobler reasons.

Either you dismiss your urge for status, dismiss the distaste for status-seeking, or engage in a complicated act of self-delusion. None of these choices seem very appealing to me.

What’s the Answer?

I don’t know if I have one.

Maybe the reason that so many people pursue the delusional approach is that it is the most effective, or at least the easiest, resolution to the inner conflict.

Perhaps the resolution to the conflict lies in accepting our need for status like all our other needs, hunger, sex or affection. Accepting that status, however distasteful we find the pursuit of it, is a part of our life.

We don’t have to concede that status is necessary for a happy life. People are happily celibate even though I’d argue sex is also a fundamental drive. But, we should at least concede that the drive exists, and fulfilling it isn’t bad so long as it doesn’t overwhelm our personality.

We should also accept that directly seeking status is unsatisfying in the least, or even disgusting in the extremes. As a result, we should balance our strategy of life so that our pursuit of status mostly coincides with our other, nobler needs.

An artist might accept that recognition drives him. But he can also choose strategies that balance this drive with his need for creative expression, mastery or public impact. Selecting strategies that maximize both, rather than ones that promote status at the expense of expression or mastery at the expense of recognition.

I’ll be honest, this answer really isn’t complete. I think the status problem is a difficult one because the dual drives of status-acquisition and distaste of status-acquiring behavior makes it hard to easily reconcile them without some form of cognitive dissonance.

What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments!

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  • Armen Shirvanian

    Hi Scott.

    In the past, I had thought about this comical situation, but not in as detailed of a way. I would think about certain folks that made certain purchases, and how, while they were status-based, they wouldn’t be likely to publicly say they were status-based. It might be in the category of indirect communications made to others.

    You have a point here in that they are not fooling most of us, although some might not pick up on the goal of status-seeking, and only see the status.

    Some people are much more vocal about their status-seeking, and while it is more quick to irk some, others are glad they aren’t covering their desires up.

    I think fooling some folks is the engine behind the quest, because if one person sends out a compliment or other reward to a sneaky status-seeker, the process is more likely to continue.

  • Jack Christopher

    Do you make a distinction between social status with transient “status”?

    I see two status’:
    Social status is perceived long-term (usually stable) status—you’re general social worth. Ex. CEO DeSeve>janitor.
    Status is perceived but fluctuating short-term status—your immediate worth. Ex. If janitor quips on CEO’s name: ” *Deceive* me again?” Janitor>ceo. The janitor is signaling higher status, by verbally lowering the CEO.

    But we necessarily seek both, and can’t help it. All behavior has an implied status. If you don’t signal your worthy, you’re out the tribe.

  • Jon

    Nice article, Scott. I would add, not to criticize but to augment, that there are other reasons for acquiring wealth than simply status or stuff. I, for example, care nothing for status or stuff, but I still want to acquire wealth. Why? Wealth = freedom. Freedom to travel, freedom to explore, freedom to do whatever it takes to elicit fulfillment and happiness from life. I don’t mean to equate wealth with happiness by any stretch, but living as we do in a money-driven world, one can very often be traded for the other.

  • Brett –

    Hey Scott,

    I don’t know exactly if people chase status exclusively if we talk about wealth.

    Sometimes people chase wealth because it is a challenge and there are certain kinds of people who love challenging themselves.

    Sometimes people chase wealth because they live in poor conditions (it’s not a matter of “status” if you live in the inner city or poor districts) and want a better life.

    Sometimes people chase wealth because they do want material goods – like a nicer house, a better car, more books, whatever. (Though I’d DEFINITELY agree with you that society has sold us an image that the material possessions we think we want are just status symbols)

    Sometimes people chase wealth because they want to have a legacy to pass onto their children – so for posterity’s sake they want to lighten the burden on future generations by getting rich now.

    Sometimes people don’t even chase wealth and get wealthy because they had an idea that was truly innovative and maximized their earnings while selling that idea.

    You also bring up that people don’t want things beyond the bare minimum of survival. Really? If that were true, everyone wouldn’t have a computer, heat in their houses, an oven, and any appliances we take for granted – except as symbols of status over homeless people. But suddenly my computer’s a status symbol? I don’t NEED it to survive, man. I had to accumulate money to buy it.

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m flaming or anything – this is just honest debate from my point of view. It just seems like there’s a gaping hole in your logic, and it’s my duty as a good, critical thinker to point it out.

    (I do understand what you’re getting at – many middle class people in the West feel “poor” for some reason or another. I attribute that to a lack of real financial knowledge and money managing skills rather than chasing status)

    Have a good one, and I look forward to seeing your reply/rebuttal!


  • Weasel

    My impression is that this is pretty well known in psych circles, and I find it disappointing that it rarely seems to be used, or taken seriously if it is, as a counter argument to the idea of the free-market folks that we absolutely MUST be able to pay corporate executives, and others, 1,000s of times more than the average worker in order to motivate them. Level out the economic incentives and other forms of status will rise in importance to take over that function. It’s human nature to compete for status. Money is only one of many possible options that can function as the yardstick.

  • Andrew

    I think this is best explained within the context of evolutionary psychology. Seeking status is low-status, but genuine displays of status are evolved (therefore proven valid) selection shortcuts.

    The human mind’s evolution over the course of a million plus years of scarcity yields strange behavioral results in societies enjoyng surplus. We have a resource stocking bias (people don’t want stuff, but they don’t want to be without it later… which presents as superfluous consumption), a status demonstration bias (which may present as status seeking or conspicuous consumption), and an individuality demonstration bias (for genetic variance) all colliding with the sometimes conscious, sometimes subconscious recognition of the (historically unprecedented) ability for almost anyone to mimic the cues.

    So.. While it may be a zero sum game for our enlightened concepts of happiness, it’s a serious competition within the reproductive selection framework of our outmoded (tribally optimized) brains. In other words, it feels weird because we’re better at sorting out who to mate with than grappling with meta cultural dynamics.

    Thought provoking post. Nice work.

  • John

    I find that it may be easier to understand the whole process if one replaces your use of “status” with the words, “self-esteem”.

    I propose to you that many (and possibly most, but I am not privy to any particular study that gives a quantity, so I’ll hang my hat on the less-specific of the two) who pursue status do so because it is actually a proxy for self-esteem. They perceive that those who have more, must, by necessity, feel better about themselves. They may have also found in their purchases, in their mingling with others of higher status, and in their obvious achievements for which they receive some recognition, that their experience of self-esteem is greater.

    Of course, I think that most who are even mildly conscious will tend to note that the self-esteem that comes from acquisition (whether of material goods or of notability) is fleeting at best, and non-existent at worst. However, the pursuers can not ignore their beliefs that acquisition brings self-esteem, and thus frequently find themselves needing bigger and bigger “hits” in order to get the same kick; not unlike a drug addict.

    There is no cognitive dissonance when one understands that pursuit of status is not bad, in and of itself. As with everything, one must simply examine the motivation of their pursuit in order to assess whether the pursuit is healthy or unhealthy. If one seeks status because of a perception that it will fill an esteem need, then one is quite likely participating in unhealthy behaviour (that is, behaviour that will ultimately cause more harm than good, mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually). If one seeks status for the sake of status itself and not with some underlying self-esteem motivation, then it may conceivably be considered healthy, provided they are clear on their motivation and choose to make that pursuit without harming themselves or those around them (again, mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually).

    Quite rightly, one might argue that anyone who has a suitably developed level of self-esteem will not likely have the need to seek status, and that may well be true. Instead, status may be thrust upon them as a result of their efforts to engage in activities which reflect their higher selves, and possibly garner them significant attention as a side effect, whether on a local or international level. Thus, not everyone who enjoys (which may or may not be an appropriate choice of words, depending upon whom you speak to) significant status may have purposely sought that out as a result of an attempt to assuage the needs of the ego.

    So then to answer the dilemma you proposed with the three options: “Either you dismiss your urge for status, dismiss the distaste for status-seeking, or engage in a complicated act of self-delusion. None of these choices seem very appealing to me.”

    My answer is none-of-the-above. The dilemma actually has nothing to do with status or riches, but instead to do with self-esteem. If one is willing to admit to and attempt to remedy a fragile self-esteem, then the status question becomes a non sequiter. With a well-founded self-esteem, one can pursue riches and/or status for whatever reasons their emotional drivers tell them. The love of a challenge; the exercise of living a profoundly high expression of their self; these are but two of a whole host of reasons that could then be the motivation.

    But in the end, I suspect that your post addresses primarily the middle-class–the middle-level performer–the masses. And in that case, in most cases, I will hang my hat on this: whether riches or status is not the question. The question is, why do they believe that they will find self and fulfillment outside of their own selves?

    And I think that most often, the answer will be, because that’s what our society and culture tells them is so.

  • Scott Young

    Great responses everyone!


    Interesting idea, I’m not sure whether I entirely agree, but I’m thinking about it.


    I didn’t get a chance to touch on evol psych in the post, but it is obviously a key relevant factor. What strangeness we’ve inherited as beings.


    Yes, it’s a direct oversimplification. There are other reasons to pursue money, and I completely agree with your challenge argument. Then again, I’ve also done other things purely for the challenge that many people wouldn’t consider (even though they doggedly chase more money).

    Freedom matters, but it isn’t a universal explanation. Why then would so many people work in trapped jobs just to earn more money? I don’t have an answer.

    Computers and other modern gadgets wouldn’t directly qualify as status symbols. But do you know anyone that bought a Mac because they wanted to have a cool computer, not just because of the strict functionality it offered?


  • Gustav

    Good one John.

    One could also put this in the context of choice. More money equals more choice and more opportunities to get what we want – Or, what we think we want. This is just another step in the imagined ladder most of us are climbing (at least in the west) that tells us that more money equals more choice and that this is purely a good thing. The question one fails to ask oneself is what it is that one really wants.

    We are bombarded with advertisement trying to sell a better world to us, and this better world is what we (in general) want to buy!

  • Brett –


    How about this one: security. This makes more sense than the status argument, and explains why people would choose trapping jobs they hate over a job they genuinely like doing.

    They want financial SECURITY over a long period of time – however, as all things are essentially in flux, I’m not sure how wise that approach is.

  • dano

    platform to create change?
    platform to influence/impact?

  • Farnam Street

    Great Article! Thanks!

  • Linda

    Hi Scott

    Thanks, I find your blog thought provoking.

    I agree that we are sitting with unhealthy distortions of status. I don’t think “having status” itself is necessarily a problem, though. I think the problem lies in the content we tend to give the word.

    A very good artist, for instance, should have the status of a very good artist because he or she is exactly that. I think this can be healthy: The artist works hard to accomplish set goals in creativity, to do what he or she does better. Other people are bound to notice and commend the artist for it, perhaps even be encouraged to achieve goals of their own. Your status as a good artist, however, shouldn’t be an end in itself. It should be a by-product of real artistic achievement. The moment you start seeking status for the sake of it, you start seeking and putting on the APPEARANCE of status. The appearance of status is the rascal that leads us to be seen with the supposedly right people, wearing the supposedly right clothes, socialising in the supposedly right places (and driving there in the supposedly right cars!).

    I wouldn’t say, for instance, that Howard Roark didn’t have any status, or even that he was opposed to it. I think Rand describes him as a man with great stature! But the reason for his status wasn’t that he sought it out. It came through his steadfast will to redefine beauty in building so that the way the place will function is actually taken into consideration on an aesthetic level too… He didn’t have the type of status that the other architects sought, but he had real, lasting status for actually CONTRIBUTING: He handled space in a way that came closer to the way it should be handled than the way that his contemporaries did. How did he do this? He went back to the concrete-ness of concrete, the rock-ness of rock (hehe..), the being of humans (because it affects how they will end up LIVING inside the building). He refused to lie with what he did.

    Perhaps that is why we loose status when you seek it openly: In its’ core, status isn’t something that we can achieve in itself. The whole concept is flawed. We’ve distorted status to look like something you can buy or hold and control, while we can actually only “get” status in the same way that we “get” respect: By really earning it. By doing what we know we are supposed to be doing and doing it really really well.

    I think the real problem is that we lie with what we do
    and I would like to encourage every person to know their (type) of status!!

  • Linda

    Sorry, just to bring it back to your question:
    I think people want riches to buy stuff AND status. But I think they only want that because they don’t want to know what they really NEED. It’s hard work to speak the truth with what you do.

  • David

    I suspect the solution is: give up.

    Give up trying to find what you cannot find outside yourself, and recognize that you already are perfect, limitless, worthy of love and of loving.

    After that, if you still want the status, then sure, go for it.

    Just take care not to let the mind grab the giving up from you, spinning it into yet another story about yourself.

  • Barbara

    This is a very timely discussion because earlier this evening I was lamenting over the fact that my son (age 19) is very into money, materialism and status. I am the complete opposite and it bothers and baffles me that he is this way. But…he admits it and is not ashamed of it. I think its almost a way to try and feel better about yourself if you are insecure, if you can LOOK good and successful then you can convince yourself and others that you are. I don’t know…just thinking out loud.

  • An

    Hi Scott,

    I agree with the first half of your article, with the people do not really want stuff, but status. However, the paradox of wanting status, yet not be “seen” seeking status – is deeper than that.

    I see it as every single person needs to understand they HAVE status. If they do not see that they ALREADY have status, they will use whatever means they have to SEEK status. However, nothing they can seek, no matter how hard they try, will compare to the status that is ALREADY within them.

    Let me illustrate. For example, an apple seed knows it will grow to be an apple tree and bear apples. Yet if the apple seed doesn’t know it is an apple seed, and tries to grow and become an tree bearing lemons, by growing off a branch of a lemon tree or other means, it will not only stunt the growth of the lemon tree, but stunt its own growth to become the full apple tree it is meant to be.

    We need to understand our status comes from understanding and growing who we already ARE, what we already HAVE, right here, right now, and moving on from here.

    (Of course, I certainty do not have all the answers, please feel free to jump in the discussion.)

  • Hey

    LessWrong had a similar idea regarding charity: instead of trying to make the world better, feel good, and get status with the same charity, you should do 3 different charity investments in order to get optimized utilons, hedons, and whatever they called the unit for status in your peergroup.

  • Hey

    I think the solution is to make status-seeking legit but constructive. Ie the Open Source movement where you get status for contributing useful stuff, not just writing useless TPS reports so you can buy a fancier car.

  • grant

    i love when people donate to something anonymously. there will be a list of people like: john q. and jane k. public (middle initials so we do not dare confuse them with some other folks with the same name), robert rothchilds rockefeller-whatever and then just “anonymous” which totally takes the piss out of the others.
    anywho, loved your post.

  • Fred

    I’m a big fan of Tony Robbins and his idea that we all have six human needs that absolutely MUST be met in order to feel fulfilled. One of the six needs is a sense of significance. You can meet your need for significance any way that you would like. You can meet it by being a champion of the human spirit and reaching out to everyone you can. You can also do it by being richer than your neighbor.

    I think the solution to your question comes when you realize that people don’t really want *status* they want significance. Status is one vehicle (and a very common vehicle at that) that someone might use. It’s certainly not the only one available.

    If you want to sidestep the tension in your life, why not just ask yourself what your rules are for feeling significant. Why not set a rule that says I am significant simply because I am a member of the human race striving to grow and give? Why not get rid of the rules that say “I am insignificant if ……” Easier said than done, but these rules definitely exist for each of us and they can most certainly be unconditioned. I’ve had the pleasure of doing it with myself, with clients, and to see it done with others.

    It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever experienced..and yes, it is also one of the primary ways I meet MY need for significance!

  • Geo

    It’s not just about stuff or status.

    Many people pursue/accrue wealth for a sense of freedom.