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Have You Fallen For These 7 Pop Culture Myths of Fabulous Living?

marilyn.JPGAs a culture, we have a lot of silly ideas about what it means to live a fabulous life.

How could a woman struggling with substance abuse, rehab, divorce, custody issues, allegations of parental neglect, career implosion, and other happiness-crushing problems have been featured on a show called The Fabulous Life? The woman I’m talking about is Britney Spears. The show I’m talking about, The Fabulous Life, airs on VH1. So tell me, how did someone as unfortunate as Britney end up with an hour-long tabloid-style advertisement for her fabulous life?

The obvious answer is that no one knew about Britney’s problems when the show originally aired. The less obvious (but equally true) answer is that The Fabulous Life is a superficial pop show about fame and fortune and not a serious investigation of a celebrity’s happiness. Both answers are fair and reasonable, but neither is related to the point I’m about to make.

My point is this: we’re all way too quick to assume that a person’s life is fabulous simply because she is rich and famous. And as a result, we spend too much time emulating a life-model that doesn’t work.

Listen, I’m not passing judgment on Britney. I don’t pretend to know Britney. And this article is not about Britney. This article is about our terrible misunderstanding of what makes a person happy.

Some of you are probably looking at me cross-eyed right about now, which makes me think that now would be a good time to debunk the top 7 pop culture myths of what it means to live a fabulous life.

Myth #1 – Wealth Equals Happiness: Once your basic needs are met, more money does not equal more happiness. In the words of Richard Easterlin, “Few generalizations in the social sciences enjoy such wide-ranging support as that of the diminishing marginal utility of income.” While it’s true that the jump from poverty to middle-class yields a substantial happiness increase, every additional dollar from that point forward provides ever-decreasing benefit, and other factors (such as job satisfaction and relationships) become more important than ever.

Myth #2 – Job Satisfaction Depends upon Salary: As Easterlin tells us, “how much pleasure people get from their job is independent of how much it pays.” That doesn’t mean that salary is irrelevant (see above), only that it’s a terrible predictor of job satisfaction.

Myth #3 – Beauty and Image Reign Supreme: While it’s hard to refute the benefits of beauty, Psychologist Tim Kasser warns that valuing image and beauty more than intrinsic factors, such as honor and self-actualization, leads nowhere but down. There’s nothing wrong with being beautiful, just as there’s nothing wrong with being rich; the problem is one of priority.

Myth #4 – Promiscuous Sex Makes Men Happy: Seriously, what guy hasn’t admired the reported sexual exploits of dynamos like Gene Simmons and Wilt Chamberlain? It’s every guy’s fantasy, right? Well, not so fast. Research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald asserts that monogamy with someone you love is ultimately more satisfying than all the casual encounters in Babylon.

Myth #5 – Owning Lots of Cool Stuff is Satisfying: The relevant question here is why you bought the stuff to begin with. Purchases motivated by internal values are more satisfying than those motivated by external pressures. Put more simply, if you spend 20 thousand dollars on a new home theater because you’re a serious videophile who loves watching movies, you’re more likely to be satisfied than if you were trying to impress the neighbors, assuming you could afford the home theater to begin with. And the fact remains: beyond the basics, the amount of stuff you own has little to do with how happy you are.

Myth #6 – Fame is Fabulous: The tabloids are full of famous people who are miserable in spite of fame; some commit suicide and join the long ranks of celebrity dead. I’m quite sure celebrity has perks, just as I’m sure different types of notoriety yield different levels of satisfaction. But one thing I know for sure: fame, in and of itself, does not make a person happy.

Myth #7 – A Life of Leisure Leads to Happiness: We all have fantasies of endless vacations on sun-swept beaches, staring out at the blue-green waters of eternity. But studies have shown that a life of leisure quickly leads to boredom. The extent to which you make so much money that you never have to make any more is the extent to which you must confront the greatest challenge of all: yourself. This progression from basic needs to self-actualization is classic Maslow. And if you’re lucky enough to figure out what you want to do with all your freedom (many aren’t so lucky), you’ll probably find that you agree with Harvard Psychology Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, who says that in spite of all your freedom, you cannot be happy without work.

Listen, it’s normal to be curious about the rich and famous, which is why shows like The Fabulous Life remain popular. And these shows are harmless, so long as we don’t actually start to believe that people like Britney Spears are happier simply because they’re wealthier and more famous.

Instead of emulating pop stars, research suggests we’d be better off living a life of honor, love, and fulfillment. In other words, meaningful work and loving relationships are more satisfying than all the flash and glitter in Hollywood.


10 Responses to “Have You Fallen For These 7 Pop Culture Myths of Fabulous Living?”

  • Bolo says:

    Thanks for the article John..I do think we emphasize the so-called good life more than its worth.

  • Jason says:

    I have no desire to live a life of leisure, but I would like to be able to cut back to only working 20-ish hours per week, instead of 40 hours paid work, 5 hours for lunch (I’m still stuck at work… too far away to go home), and 8 hours or so of drive time per week.

    Oh, and on one of your other points… I have no desire to be rich and famous. Rich would be nice, famous (Britney Spears famous, at least) is not my cup of tea.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jason. I have much agreement with what you said.

    In addition, I humbly suggest that work can be so much more than the 40-hour humdrum that most people envision. In fact, the narrow definition of work is one of the reasons that people are so slow to buy into the positive psychology assertion that we “need work to be happy.” We may not need a traditional job, but we do need to pay our bills, preferably doing something we love — something that may or may not fit the traditional definition of work.

    Of course, for the fabulously wealthy, work need not pay the bills — but self-actualization and fulfillment through productive activity remain very important.

  • Jake says:

    I doubt anyone rich would ever trade his horrible, aweful sadness filled life, with the happy, joyful, enriched life of someone working 40 hours a week at 6 dollars per hour.

    All of these “rich people are less happy than poor people” stories really pisses me off after a while. Rich is fun, not having to worry how to feed your family is fun. Sitting back and watching stock dividends increase your money while you watch tv is very fun. Understanding how dividends lets you pay a lower rate of taxes than someone working 40 hours a week is absolutely hilarious.


  • JohnPlace says:

    Jake, I’m not sure if you’re responding to my article or not, since your comments seem somewhat unrelated.

    What I said was that income has a diminishing margin of utility and that once a person reaches middle-class, factors such as work satisfaction and relationships become more reliable happiness benchmarks.

  • Jake says:

    I doubt anyone like bill gates will trade his life with someone from the middle class. Sorry, it isn’t going to happen. No amount of “army of psychologists” can convince me otherwise.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Jake, where did I suggest that Bill Gates would want to (or even should) trade down his income?

  • Jake says:

    Myth #1 – Wealth Equals Happiness.

    Wealth generally does equal happiness. Thats why Bill Gates and the other extremely wealthy, are very happy to be wealthy.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Jake, If I had Bill’s money, I wouldn’t trade places either. I think you’ve missed the point, but no hard feelings.

    Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes it very clear that downward slides in income seem very unsavory before they happen, which is one reason (though certainly not the only reason) that a person in Bill’s position would be reluctant to give up all he’s earned. Nor do I think Bill *should* give up what he’s earned. He has absolutey no compelling reason to do so.

    There’s nothing wrong with being rich, Jake. Being rich has many advantages.

    None of this speaks to the point in the article (validated through research) that money has a diminishing margin of utility and that work satisfaction and relationships are much better predictors of happiness for those who have managed to climb out of poverty.

    Again, no hard feelings. Take care.

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