The Fascinating Scientific Reason Why "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness"
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The Misconception: There is nothing better in the world than getting paid to do what you love.
The Truth: Getting paid for doing what you already enjoy will sometimes cause your love for the task to wane because you attribute your motivation as coming from the reward, not your internal feelings.
Money isn’t everything. Money can’t buy happiness. Don’t live someone else’s dream. Figure out what you love and then figure out how to get paid doing it.
Maxims like these often find their way into your social media; they arrive in your electronic mailbox at the ends of dense chains of forwards. They bubble up from the collective sighs of well-paid boredom around the world and get routinely polished for presentation in graduation speeches and church sermons.
Money, fame, and prestige – they dangle just outside your reach it seems, encouraging you to lean farther and farther over the edge, to study longer and longer, to work harder and harder. When someone reminds you that acquiring currency while ignoring all else shouldn’t be your primary goal in life, it feels good. You retweet it. You post it on your wall. You forward it, and then you go back to work.
If only science had something concrete to say about the whole thing, you know? All these living greeting cards dispensing wisdom are great and all, but what about really putting money to the test? Does money buy happiness? In 2010, scientists published the results of a study looking into that very question.
The research by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the lives and incomes of nearly half-a-million randomly selected U.S. citizens. They dug through the subjects’ lives searching for indicators of something psychologists call “emotional well being,” a clinical term for how often you feel peaks and valleys like “joy, stress, sadness, anger and affection” and to what degree you feel those things daily. In other words, they measured how happy or sad people were over time compared to how much cash they brought home. They did this by checking if the subjects were consistently able to experience the richness of existence, by whether they were tasting the poetic marrow of life.
The researchers discovered money is indeed a major factor in day-to-day happiness. No surprise there. You need to make a certain amount, on average, to be able to afford food, shelter, clothing, entertainment and the occasional Apple product, but what spun top hats around the country was their finding that beyond a certain point your happiness levels off. The happiness money offers doesn’t keep getting more and more potent – it plateaus. The research showed that a lack of money brings unhappiness, but an overabundance does not have the opposite effect.
According to the research, in modern America the average income required to be happy day-to-day, to experience “emotional well being” is about $75,000 a year. According to the researchers, past that point adding more to your income “does nothing for happiness, enjoyment, sadness, or stress.” A person who makes, on average, $250,000 a year has no greater emotional well-being, no extra day-to-day happiness, than a person making $75,000 a year. In Mississippi it is a bit less, in Chicago a bit more, but the point is there is evidence for the existence of a financiohappiness ceiling. The super-wealthy may believe they are happier, and you may agree, but you both share a delusion.
If you don’t already have it, money can improve your life and make you happier, but once you have enough to go to Red Lobster on Tuesday night without worrying about paying the water bill that month, you’re good to go. Or, as Henry David Thoreau once said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” In the modern United States the ability to let most things alone, according to Kahneman and Deaton’s research, costs about $75,000 a year.