Yes, more money will always make your life better, but that’s not all there is to happiness, says new study

by Alexandru Micu

In a twist that’s bound to surprise nobody, a new study finds that there isn’t actually any limit past which more money won’t make you happier. Yes, that sounds disheartening, but the authors also caution that it’s not the only thing that makes us happy by a long shot. Chasing money at the expense of everything else might actually make us less happy.

The relationship between wealth and happiness has always fascinated researchers. One widely-known bit of research in the past suggested that the magic number is $75,000 per year. You won’t gain more happiness by gaining more than that, it added. But if you’ve had to bear through the pandemic jobless or in a job you hate but had to take, struggling to make ends meet, while watching rich people ‘suffer’ in mansions with gardens or spending their holidays on private islands, you might not put too much stock in that idea.

New research agrees with you.

The more the merrier

“[The relationship between money and well-being is] one of the most studied questions in my field,” says Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Penn’s Wharton School who studies human happiness, lead author of the paper. “I’m very curious about it. Other scientists are curious about it. Laypeople are curious about it. It’s something everyone is navigating all the time.”

Killingsworth set out to answer the question with a wealth of data. The technique he used is called experience sampling, and it involves having people to fill out short surveys at random times of the day. These serve as ‘snapshots’ of their feelings and moods over time, and how these fluctuate.

All in all, he collected 1.7 million data points (‘snapshots’) from more than 33,000 participants aged 18 to 65 from the US through an app called Track Your Happiness that he developed. This allowed him to obtain measurements from each participant a few times every day, with check-in times being randomized for each participant. These were measured on a scale ranging from “very bad” to “very good”, and every participant also answered the question “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” (on a scale of “not at all” to “extremely”) at least once. These all measured evaluative well-being, he explains.

“It tells us what’s actually happening in people’s real lives as they live them, in millions of moments as they work and chat and eat and watch TV,” he explains.

But the study also tracked experienced well-being by asking about 12 specific feelings. Five were positive — confident, good, inspired, interested, and proud — and seven negative — afraid, angry, bad, bored, sad, stressed, and upset. Two other measures of life satisfaction collected on an intake survey were also factored in here. Evaluative well-being measures our overall satisfaction with life, while experienced well-being indicates how we feel in the moment.

All in all, Killingsworth says the findings suggest that there is no dollar value past which more money won’t matter to an individual’s well-being and happiness.

“It’s a compelling possibility, the idea that money stops mattering above that point, at least for how people actually feel moment to moment,” he adds . “But when I looked across a wide range of income levels, I found that all forms of well-being continued to rise with income. I don’t see any sort of kink in the curve, an inflection point where money stops mattering. Instead, it keeps increasing.”

“We would expect two people earning $25,000 and $50,000, respectively, to have the same difference in well-being as two people earning $100,000 and $200,000, respectively. In other words, proportional differences in income matter the same to everyone.”

Killingsworth used the logarithm of a person’s income, rather than the actual income, for his study. In essence, this takes into account how much money someone already has. This approach means that rather than being just as important for everyone, each dollar will matter less the more a person earns.

He found that higher earners are happier in part because they feel more in control over their life. More money means more choices, options, and possibilities in regards to how we live life and spend our time, as the pandemic brutally showed. Someone living paycheck to paycheck will have less autonomy over their choices than someone who’s better-off — such as not having to take any job, even if you dislike it, due to financial constraints. Still, in Killingsworth’s eyes, this doesn’t mean we should chase money, and I feel the same way.

“Although money might be good for happiness, I found that people who equated money and success were less happy than those who didn’t. I also found that people who earned more money worked longer hours and felt more pressed for time,” Killingsworth explains.

“If anything, people probably overemphasize money when they think about how well their life is going. Yes, this is a factor that might matter in a way that we didn’t fully realize before, but it’s just one of many that people can control and ultimately, it’s not one I’m terribly concerned people are undervaluing.”

He hopes the findings bring forth more pieces of that ever-elusive puzzle: what exactly makes us happy? Money definitely plays a part, but, according to the findings, only “modestly”, Killingsworth explains.

The paper has been published in the journal PNAS and on the Penn State University’s blog.

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