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Study reveals a twist on adage

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An ACU study into wellbeing yielded some suprising results about what goals the happiest people have. PHOTO: Supplied

If you aspire to help make the world a better place and but would also like to be rich, beautiful and famous you are likely to be among the world’s happiest people according an Australian study.

Dr Emma Bradshaw at Australian Catholic University’s (ACU) Institute for Positive Psychology and Education said that her research into the links between happiness, materialistic and unmaterialistic goals yielded the surprising result.

Dr Bradshaw compared studies with more than 11,000 participants from several countries including Australia, Hungary and the United States.

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She found that people who pursue beauty, fame and money as their highest goals reported being much less happy than those who prioritise improving the lives of others, and those whose main focus was on making the world a better place, while still holding materialistic goals, had the highest wellbeing.

Those who value close personal relationships above all else reported moderate levels of wellbeing. All three groups were roughly equal in number.

ACU researcher Dr Emma Bradshaw

“Much of what we found we were expecting,” Dr Bradshaw said. “But surprisingly, the group that was the happiest was the group that were still engaged in materialistic goals but prioritised non-materialistic goals.

“That was a surprise because we would tend to think that the highest levels of wellbeing might be found in the kind of person who is totally disengaged from materialistic goals.
“The message that you don’t have to turn your back on these goals completely is quite reassuring.”

The study included multiple-choice questions such as ‘I think caring about the welfare of other people is important’.

Another intriguing takeaway was finding that the happiest people scored well above average in both goal types, but that those who care about making life better for everyone are better off than those who prioritise their own desires, Dr Bradshaw said.

“In general, we’re better off to focus less on our own material lack and more on helping others and in fact by including ever more people in your scope of concern you actually increase your own wellbeing.”

“It’s all about priorities. We all know the sad stereotype of the beautiful, famous and super wealthy person who is unhappy.

“Popular culture and celebrity influencers on social media platforms like Instagram place a premium on material goals and beauty and those goals are very seductive.

“But the research demonstrates that focusing on personal growth, close relationships, community giving, and physical health goals is more beneficial to your sense of wellness than goals for wealth, fame, and image above everything.”

Dr Bradshaw’s work drew upon de-identified data and she hopes her next step will be finding people who aspire to make the world a better place for many people to see how many of them are actively working to achieve their goal.

“I think it would be a special group,” she said.

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