Here's a seemingly simple question for you: How does a person get rich?

While the answer might be complicated in the particulars, the basic outlines of accumulating wealth appear straightforward at first blush--you aim to make money, save prudently, and invest wisely. In short, you focus on getting wealthy and practice sound financial planning.

According to new psychological research, though, things aren't quite so simple. While no one would discourage a healthy drive to create and conserve wealth, it appears that the best way to get rich isn't actually to focus on getting rich.

So what should you focus on instead?

More purpose leads to more money

According to a new study highlighted on the always fascinating British Psychological Society Research Digest blog, when it comes to building a fat bank balance, a sense of purpose is more important than a hunger for financial success.

The large study followed a sample of more than 7,000 Americans for nine years. It measured participants' sense of purpose in life at the beginning of the research by asking how strongly they agreed with statements such as "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them." It also tracked subjects' net worth and income over time. After nearly a decade, what differences emerged between those with a greater sense of purpose and those with less?

You might suppose that purpose brings happiness (and earlier research suggests you'd be correct), but this new study shows that purpose also brings riches.

The researchers "found that those individuals who'd reported more sense of purpose at the study start had accumulated more wealth over this time period, and they experienced greater increases to their income," BPS reports. "This was true even after controlling for the influence of personality and life-satisfaction. Statistically speaking, a one standard deviation increase in purpose at the study start was associated with accumulating an extra $20,857 over the ensuing nine years or so of the study."

The link between a sense of purpose in life and greater wealth accumulation was particularly strong among younger participants, suggesting that having concrete life aims was particularly impactful at the start of a person's career journey.

Which sort of purpose is best for getting rich?

Read these results and you might be prompted to ask a logical question: Which sort of purpose was linked with the highest gains in wealth? Was it just those people whose purpose was making money who ended up richer at the conclusion of the research, or did those folks who aimed to make the world a better place or create a happy family reap equal financial rewards?

Here the findings get a little less clear. "The researchers didn't ask the participants about the content of their sense of purpose," BPS notes, so they weren't able to draw any conclusions about what sort of life purpose pays the highest dividends.

But while the research can't offer any definitive proof that wealth is a byproduct of aiming for impact rather than financial success (the richer, purpose-driven study subjects could simply have been aiming for more money and succeeded), the results do bolster the case of those who argue that success follows from finding a passion and pursuing it rather than obsessing about success just for the sake of success.

In your experience, does wealth come from pursuing money or pursuing purpose?

Published on: Jan 5, 2017
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of