HBD: Human Biodiversity

Money and Happiness

The latest in happiness studies.

People's emotional well-being - happiness - increases along with their income up to about $75,000, researchers report in Tuesday's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For folks making less than that, said Angus Deaton, an economist at the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton University, "Stuff is so in your face it's hard to be happy. It interferes with your enjoyment."

Deaton and Daniel Kahneman reviewed surveys of 450,000 Americans conducted in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that included questions on people's day-to-day happiness and their overall life satisfaction.

Happiness got better as income rose but the effect leveled out at $75,000, Deaton said. On the other hand, their overall sense of success or well-being continued to rise as their earnings grew beyond that point.

I don’t accept the interpretation of the results.  The paper should say that people don’t say they’re any happier after $75,000.  I’m sure they also say that they’d love having black neighbors, while their behavior tells a different story.

People at least think making over $75,000 a year makes them happier.  If that wasn’t the case, economists should be able to find evidence that offering a job prospect any more than that baseline usually doesn't make him more likely to accept.  Those who follow professional sports knows how rare it is for even extremely wealthy athletes to sacrifice a million or two out of professional loyalty or for nicer weather. 

Let’s put things this way.  A survey shows that the majority of people claim they don’t like cupcakes.  At the same time, we have data showing that people buy them by the millions.  Which should we be more likely to believe better reflects reality: where hard earned and limited money is spent or surveys, which people can lie or deceive themselves on?

One may respond that if people can deceive themselves on questionnaires they can certainly deceive themselves in life, and feel that they need to push themselves into lives of drudgery for money they don’t need.  Once again, what’s more likely: that you answer incorrectly when asked about a subjective state of being at an instant or you find yourself working much more than necessary-day after day, year after year-without ever figuring out that it's not making you happy?

Results from the study itself seem to belie its headline conclusion.

"Giving people more income beyond 75K is not going to do much for their daily mood ... but it is going to make them feel they have a better life," Deaton said in an interview.

Not surprisingly, someone who moves from a $100,000-a-year job to one paying $200,000 realizes an improved sense of success. That doesn't necessarily mean they are happier day to day, Deaton said.

Many of us would include a sense of success and well-being under the category of "happiness." Perhaps this is all a confusion over semantics, and the authors mean something much more limited by the term.  

On the other hand, it’s not hard to see an agenda behind this kind of research.  Since people aren’t any happier once they reach a certain level, why not take what they have and spend it on those much poorer, who still have the potential of being made better off?  

As someone with deep intellectual interests which bring me great joy, I'd like to think that everyone was like myself. Unfortunately, experience tells us otherwise, that humanity's main concerns are much more banal.