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Will Money Make You Happy? It's Complicated

Quantifying happiness is a tricky business, but that doesn’t stop people from trying. The Wall Street Journal reports on a new poll that asked people across demographic groups to rate how happy they are, on a scale of one to ten. According to the poll’s results, the three happiest groups are the wealthy, Hispanics, and retirees:

No age group is happier than those over 65, of whom 59% rated their lives an 8 or better against 50% of Americans overall.

The gloomiest age group? Those between 50 and 64.

Nothing makes more difference, though, than wealth. In households making $75,000 a year or more, 66% gave their lives an 8 or better, compared with just 36% of those in households making less than $30,000 a year.

Strikingly, nearly 40% of people who call themselves poor also ranked their lives as a 3 or lower.

Happiness research has picked up a lot of steam in the last decade, and it has lead many academics to hope that we might finally be able to quantify the answers to the elusive question of human happiness. The field is fraught with disagreements and difficulties, over everything from methodology to the philosophical assumptions that go along with researching a malleable concept like happiness.

Even taking the field at face value, however, the correlation between happiness and wealth is considerably more nuanced than this article suggests. One of the most robust wealth/happiness findings is that once you hit a certain income level, money can’t buy you that much more happiness (some studies say $75, 000 is the point at which returns diminish, others set it higher).

Moreover, tons of leading happiness researchers have argued that the ultimate determination is not more wealth per se, but how you spend that wealth. Spending money on what some call “stimulation goods” or “inconspicuous consumption”—health, relationships, experiences—is more strongly correlated with happiness than spending money on “comfort goods” or “conspicuous consumption.” Relationships in particular are central to happiness. As happiness research savant Luigino Bruni put it “time spent with the family has the largest effect on life satisfaction” of all the factors contributing to happiness.

Anyway you look at it, the simple claim that money buys happiness is misleading. Human life is more complicated than that.

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  • John Stephens

    That money can’t buy happiness is well known to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of celebrity gossip. It can buy you options, but if you choose poorly you’ll be no better off than before.

  • Corlyss

    I been rich and I been poor. Rich is better. – Sophie Tucker.

  • Anthony

    “Money doesn’t make you happy. I now have $50 million but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

  • Jim__L

    Expectations have a lot to do with it. If you think you have to be rich(er) to be happy, you’re not going to be happy.

  • Anthony

    “…correlation between happiness and wealth more nuanced than….”

  • ljgude

    Well, I’m a retiree and it is complicated. Take the case of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian the first. He hated court life and was much happier going off to a schloss he owned to hunt wild boar with only a spear. I reckon he was a lot like your average Texan today. Anyhow, he left a poem scrawled in charcoal on the wall in the basement of the Schloss. It read:
    Live, don’t know how long.
    Ans die, don’t know when.
    Must go, I don’t know where;
    I am astonished I am so happy.

  • cubanbob

    Money won’t make you happy but it sure does make your misery more comfortable.

    As my wife-also an immigrant said being able to go to the supermarket and being able to buy whatever you want without worrying makes her happy. A wise woman indeed.

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