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Apr 7, 2023 2023-04 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Research finds thinking about money affects feelings of meaning in life

Recent studies have shown that when people think about money, their perceived socioeconomic status becomes more closely associated with their sense of meaning in life – specifically by way of how secure they feel in their ability to manage their financial situation.

“The study of meaning really looks at what kinds of experiences and contacts help people feel like their lives have a broader sense of purpose, value, and significance in the world,” said Sarah Ward, assistant professor in Gies College of Business. “Meaning in life and meaningful work are really important for people’s motivations to feel like the things they do matter to the world around them and to others.”

Ward (right), whose research often focuses on meaning in life and meaningful work, partnered with Jinhyung Kim from Sogang University to study how thinking about money impacts feelings of meaning in life and whether there is also a link to socioeconomic status. Their paper, "How does money make life meaningful? Socioeconomic status, financial self-efficacy, and meaning in life," was published in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

In four experiments, the researchers subtly activated (or primed) thoughts of money in participants to evaluate how these thoughts influenced financial self-confidence and meaning in life. In the experimental groups, participants unscrambled lists of words related to money to form sentences. In the control groups, the words were unrelated to money. All participants also answered questions about their socioeconomic status, feelings of meaning in life, and financial self-efficacy.

Across experiments, participants who were subtly primed with thoughts of money had a higher correlation between their socioeconomic status and perception of meaning in life than did participants who were not primed with thoughts of money. Participants with low socioeconomic status experienced a lower sense of meaning in life after thinking about money, whereas participants with high socioeconomic status experienced a higher sense of meaning in life after thinking about money.

Overall, mentions of money strengthened the relationship between socioeconomic status, financial self-efficacy, and feelings of meaning in life.

“If people are thinking about money and generally have high socioeconomic status, it boosts their sense of financial confidence and subsequently enhances their sense of meaning in life,” Ward said.

While the first study used scrambled sentences about gaining money, the subsequent studies used scrambled sentences about losing money. Regardless of whether the sentences were about gains or losses, the pattern of findings held.

Two of the experiments also explored job preferences and found preliminary evidence that after thinking about money, people with high socioeconomic status may have increased preferences for jobs that allow them to express themselves more authentically – even when the jobs involve lower pay – due to heightened financial self-efficacy and feelings of meaning in life.

Because the overall findings showed that people with low socioeconomic status have a lower sense of meaning in life after thinking about money, Ward stressed the importance of finding ways to help reduce or erase that negative impact.

“People’s financial situations can really affect their day-to-day well-being in ways they might not recognize,” Ward said. “It’s important to think about how we might structure messages about money and about earning money in ways that are more positively framed for people who don’t have it.”

Ward also emphasized that based on past research, many factors outside of finances – like relationships and happiness – impact how people perceive meaning. And a past study by Ward suggested that ties between socioeconomic status and feelings of meaning in life are greatly reduced or eliminated when people experience high levels of happiness.

As for how financial self-efficacy plays into meaning in life, Ward explained that if people feel more confident in their finances, they may be more likely to pursue goals important to them, which could enhance their sense of meaning.

Ward said there’s room for more research to explore not only factors that affect meaning in life and meaningful work but also ways people can enhance their experience of meaning in life and meaningful work.

“This has a lot of implications for things we didn’t explore yet,” Ward said. “We could explore how people spend their money, how people save their money, the types of purchases they might make, and the types of investment decisions they might make.”