Junk food has taken over our diets, and it is making millions of people physically sick. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that something similar is happening with our minds — that they have become dominated by junk values, and this is making us mentally sick, triggering soaring rates of depression and anxiety.
For thousands of years, philosophers have warned that if you think life is about getting money and status and showing it off, you will become deeply unhappy. But is that really true? In the 1980s, a social scientist named professor Tim Kasser set out to test whether such traditional wisdom could survive scientific scrutiny.
Kasser, now based at the University of Illinois, understood that there are, broadly, two different kinds of motives that drive human beings. Imagine you play the piano. If you play it in the morning because it gives you joy, that is an intrinsic motive — you aren't doing it to get anything else out of it; you are doing it simply because that experience is worth doing, in and of itself. Now imagine you play the piano to impress your parents, or in a dive bar you hate to pay the rent, or to seduce somebody into sleeping with you. That would be an extrinsic motive — you aren't doing it because you think the experience is worthwhile; you are doing it to get something out of it.
We are all animated by a complex mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motives. Striving to get more money or status or expensive goods for their own sake are classic examples of extrinsic motivation.
Kasser wanted to find out: How does acting on these different motives affect us? He investigated the question using a range of techniques, including correlational studies of broad populations, lab experiments and on-going mood diaries. His results were startling. People who achieved their extrinsic goals didn't experience any increase in day-to-day happiness. None. Your promotion? Your fancy car? The new iPhone? The expensive necklace? They won't improve your happiness at all.
But people who achieved their intrinsic goals did become significantly happier, and less depressed and anxious. As they worked at it and felt they became, say, a better friend, they became more satisfied with life. Being a better dad? Dancing for the sheer joy of it? Helping another person, just because it's the right thing to do? They do significantly boost your happiness.
Kasser discovered that people whose lives were dominated by extrinsic values had a worse time in almost every respect. They felt sicker, and they were angrier. They experienced less joy, and more despair. They had worse relationships, and they were more insecure.
Twenty-two different studies — by Kasser and by other scientists in the field — have found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be. Twelve have found that these values correlate with increased anxiety.
Junk food looks like food, but it doesn't meet our underlying nutritional needs. In a similar way, junk values don't meet our underlying psychological needs — to have meaning and connection in our lives. Extrinsic values are KFC for the soul. Yet our culture constantly pushes us to live extrinsically.
A 1978 experiment helped to reveal how this process works. Researchers showed one group of young children two advertisements for a specific toy, and the second group no advertisements. Then they gave the children a choice: Play with a nice boy who doesn't have the toy, or a boy who's not so nice but has the toy. The kids who hadn't seen the ad mostly chose the nicer boy, while the kids who had seen the ad mostly chose the less nice boy. Just two ads primed them to prefer an inanimate lump of plastic over human kindness, and the possibility of a more meaningful connection.
Any parent who has chosen to stay at work longer hours to buy something expensive and shiny, rather than go home to play with their kids, is trapped in the same dynamic. We live under a system, Kasser says, that constantly "distracts us from what's really good about life."
Although we are often told that our epidemic of depression and anxiety is the result of chemical imbalances, there are many ways in which it is in fact an outgrowth of the way we live now. The best anti-depressant, then, is to change our way of life. For Kasser, that meant moving with his kids to a farm with a lot of goats, where they don't watch TV and they don't get exposed to these toxic messages. But he is in favor of a wider revolution in our values; his recommended first step is to reduce the amount of psychological toxins in our environment by strictly regulating advertising.
There's an old idea called the Golden Rule, which states that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Kasser's research suggests a modern update: the I-Want-Golden-Things Rule. The more you think life is about having stuff and status, the more unhappy, and the more depressed and anxious, you will be. We don't have to continue to live this way.
Johann Hari is the author most recently of "Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions"