It’s a question pundits have pondered for ages. Can money buy happiness? According to a new study, the answer depends on how happy, or unhappy, you are to begin with. For most people, more money does bring more joy into their lives, say the researchers, but for a subset of miserable folks, about 20% of study participants, “unhappiness diminishes with rising income up to a threshold, then shows no further progress.”
According to The Washington Post, the new study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, overturned that previous research by Daniel Kahneman in 2010, suggesting that people’s happiness rose with increased income but plateaued at $75,000. It also challenged a study conducted by Matthew Killingsworth in 2021 that found that happiness rose steadily with income well beyond $75,000, without evidence of a plateau.
The two researchers decided to collaborate to reconcile the differences. They surveyed 33,391 adults between the ages of 18 and 65 who live in the U.S., are employed, and report a household income of at least $10,000 a year. The authors said they lacked data for those earning over $500,000 annually.
Killingsworth, a happiness researcher and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, developed a smartphone app called Track Your Happiness. The study participants were asked to respond to questions about how they were feeling throughout the day, Specifically, they were asked “How do you feel right now?” on a scale ranging from “very bad” to very good.”
The new study reached two big conclusions, says the Post. First that “Happiness continues to rise with income even in the high range of incomes” for the majority of people, so it doesn’t plateau at $75,000 as Kahneman, a Nobel prize-winning economist and psychologist at Princeton University, concluded in his landmark 2010 study.
Secondly, researchers found that there was an “unhappy minority,” about 20% of participants, “whose unhappiness diminishes with rising income up to a threshold, then shows no further progress.” The study said these people continue to suffer miseries that can’t be alleviated by money. These miseries include bereavement, heartbreak, or clinical depression. For them, their “suffering” may diminish as their income rises to about $100,000 but “very little beyond that.”
“In the simplest terms, this suggests that for most people, larger incomes are associated with greater happiness,” said Killingsworth in a news release. “The exception is people who are financially well-off but unhappy. For instance, if you’re rich and miserable, more money won’t help. For everyone else, more money was associated with higher happiness to somewhat varying degrees.”
The real-world implications, said Killingsworth, could involve tax rates and compensation for employees to boost happiness. Individuals may want to navigate career choices that offer higher incomes.
However, he points out that for emotional well-being, money isn’t the be all and end all.
“Money is just one of the determinants of happiness,” he said. “Money is not the secret to happiness, but it probably can help a bit.”
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