Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.

Many Americans not just want to be wealthy but also plan to be.


  • Recent research suggests that a significant number of Americans both want and plan to be wealthy.
  • A number of social and economic factors could account for the greater desire to get rich.
  • There is considerable research showing that becoming wealthy does not lead to significantly greater happiness.

In 2006, Gallup asked a representative sample of American adults whether they had a strong desire to be rich. The results were interesting. Most Americans at the time had no such desire, and just half of those polled said that making more money was a major personal goal. Most surprising, perhaps, only about a third of the sample believed they would be happier if they were rich, contradicting the commonly accepted view that greater wealth leads to greater happiness.

Two years later, the Pew Research Center asked the same question to a representative group of American adults. Only 13 percent of the sample said that it was “very important” for them to be wealthy, an even lower percentage than that found in the Gallup survey. In fact, being wealthy finished dead last in respondents’ ranking of what they valued most in life. Having enough free time to do things one wanted to, being successful in a career, having children, being married, doing volunteer work, and living a religious life were all considered more important than getting rich.

Many Americans not just want to be wealthy but also plan to be

Flash forward to 2022, when Harris Poll conducted what the research company called the Americans and Billionaires Survey. In this poll, six of every ten adults said they wanted to become not just a millionaire—the traditional benchmark of wealth—but a billionaire. As well, 44 percent of Americans believed they had the resources to become billionaires (notably cryptocurrencies). Rather than the tried-and-true path to wealth—investing over the long term—it was now generating large amounts of income in a short amount of time that was considered the key to becoming rich.

Finally, in a MagnifyMoney survey also conducted in 2022, 72 percent of the 2,000 Gen Zers polled said they believed they would be wealthy one day. The generation that was born between the mid-to late 1990s and early 2010s was, thus, highly optimistic about their financial future, an interesting thing given the oft-heard complaint by young adults that owning a home is beyond their reach. Two-thirds of Gen Zers also said that one could concurrently be wealthy and be in debt, this itself a curious finding given older generations’ inclination to see the paying off of debt as a means toward building wealth.

Reasons for Contrasting Findings

The question has to be asked: What happened in the decade-and-a-half between the first two research studies cited and the latter two studies to lead to such contrasting findings? One could propose that a number of events and factors accounted for the starkly different results, including the recovery from the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, the rise of cryptocurrencies, the flourishing of start-up culture, and the triumph of social media. More generally, one might propose that the continual spread of the online universe has made the linear ways of the analog world obsolete and encouraged the idea that anything is possible at any time.

The findings from the two more recent surveys support some observations I’ve made about our post-pandemic society. I have found that over the last couple of years, people appear to be more “money-minded” than they were before the pandemic, as if they were in a rush to make up for their lost income during the lockdown. Companies, too, seem to be greedier these days, raising prices of products while at the same time reducing their sizes to maximize profits (a.k.a. shrinkflation).

Money and Happiness

Whatever its causes, I view the current more-common-than-one-might-think dream of making mega-wealth overnight as a troubling sign of the times. Even if one does beat the very long odds (currently 0.0000345 percent on a global basis, according to by actually becoming a billionaire, it is unlikely that having all that dough will make one a measurably happier person. Considerable research over the years has shown that, as Dan Seligman concluded in 1997 after reading a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Money bears an extraordinarily weak and tenuous relationship to human happiness.”

Indeed, in their article “Who Is Happy?” published the previous year in Psychological Science, David Myers and Ed Diener found that, based on their research, wealthier Americans were just marginally happier than their less well-off neighbors. The findings from that study echoed those published in the journal Social Indicators Research about a decade earlier, implying that becoming a millionaire or even billionaire was not the best route to raise one’s level of happiness.

Those planning to be another Warren Buffett might benefit from knowing that the man himself has said that he felt just moderately happier than when he did not have billions of dollars in his bank account.

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