In the United States Today Even Happiness Has a Price

Sam Pizzigati

You want to be happy? You don’t need to be rich, says some fascinating new academic research. But you do need not to be poor. So how much income must you actually have to achieve a reasonable facsimile of nirvana? Here’s what the researchers are saying.

How much money do you need to be rich? Social scientists can’t help us much with that question. How much money do you need to be happy? On this one, two scholars from Princeton now have an answer.

In fact, these two researchers — economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate — have an exact number: $75,000. Americans today making under $75,000, their new National Academy of Sciences research suggests, will become happier as their income nears that figure.

But income over $75,000, the two find, brings “no improvement whatever” in the “the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience — the frequency and intensity of experiences of joy, stress, sadness, anger, and affection that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant.”

This new Princeton research adds some surprisingly precise specificity to a generation worth of global research on “subjective well-being,” the scientific catch-phrase for happiness.

Scholars have been documenting for some time that more income — for folks who have modest incomes — can substantially enhance how people feel emotionally. Researchers have also shown that these feel-good feelings don’t increase as incomes keep rising. If you have enough income to be relatively comfortable and secure, more income isn’t going to make you any happier.

At what point does more money no longer “buy happiness”? Deaton and Kahneman have, in effect, found that “sweet spot” — at around $75,000. How can they be so sure? They’ve crunched the data from two years of Gallup daily polling, a universe of 450,000 interviews with U.S. residents.

Those Americans polled answered two different types of questions. One asked whether they had experienced particular emotional feelings — smiling, sadness, stress, among others — “during a lot of the day yesterday.”

The other asked the polled to imagine themselves on a ten-step ladder of life, with “10” representing the “best possible life” and “0” the worst. On which step, the pollsters asked, “would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?”

These two basic questions, note Deaton and Kahneman, speak to the two distinctive strains of subjective well-being. The ladder addresses “life evaluation,” how people think about the overall trajectory of their lives.

Higher incomes, the two researchers found, do appear to generate greater satisfaction with how we evaluate ourselves. The richer you are, the more successful — and satisfied— you feel.

signupBut you don’t feel happier, on a daily basis, as your income rises above $75,000. You don’t smile and laugh and enjoy yourself more.  You don’t feel less sad and worried. Above and beyond $75,000, Deaton and Kahneman conclude, “higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress.”

“More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain,” the two relate. “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.”

Two-thirds of U.S. households in 2008 had incomes below $75,000.

What about other nations? Is the local currency equivalent of $75,000 a universal happiness standard? Deaton and Kahneman don’t offer any speculations on that score. But they do tease some global questions.

Among the 150 nations with comparable data, the two scholars observe, the U.S. ranks high — number nine — on the life-evaluation ladder score but quite low on other measures, fifth from the bottom on stress, for instance.

That stress, other researchers have shown, closely tracks levels of inequality. More money may not always buy happiness. More equality just may.

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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