Does money buy you happiness? Researchers join forces to reveal the answer

A recent study finds the relationship between money and happiness may be more complex than previously thought.

For most people, researchers said, more money meant more happiness, but noted “if you’re rich and miserable, more money won’t help.”

Researchers from the universities of Pennsylvania and Princeton, through a study published March 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, find that on average larger incomes are associated with increasing levels of happiness.

But for some, particularly those who are most unhappy, that happiness peaks at US$100,000 a year and then plateaus, the researchers say.

“In the simplest terms, this suggests that for most people larger incomes are associated with greater happiness,” Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Penn’s Wharton School and lead author of the paper, said in a story published by Penn Today.

“The exception is people who are financially well-off but unhappy. For instance, if you’re rich and miserable, more money won’t help. For everyone else, more money was associated with higher happiness to somewhat varying degrees.”

The study attempts to reconcile contradictory results from researchers at Penn and Princeton about the impact that larger incomes have on overall happiness.

Research from Killingsworth at Penn found in 2021 that happiness rose with income beyond US$75,000 without plateauing, while a 2010 study from Princeton found happiness did level off above $75,000.

Both sides chose to work together on what they referred to as an “adversarial collaboration,” described as a process where differing parties collaborate with a third-party mediator to solve scientific disputes or disagreements.

Through this, they found that happiness varies depending on a person’s emotional well-being.

For those who are least happy, happiness rises up to an income of US$100,000 but no further.

Individuals whose happiness fell within the middle saw their happiness rise directly with income, while the happiest groups saw their happiness accelerate above US$100,000.

The researchers referred to data from Killingworth’s 2021 Penn study, where he used an app called Track Your Happiness to ask users how they feel at random points throughout any given day.

But they say their breakthrough came when they looked at the 2010 data, where happiness plateaued, and found it revealed more about the trend among unhappy people as opposed to happiness in general.

“Once you recognize that, the two seemingly contradictory findings aren’t necessarily incompatible,” Killingsworth said.

“And what we found bore out that possibility in an incredibly beautiful way. When we looked at the happiness trend for unhappy people in the 2021 data, we found exactly the same pattern as was found in 2010; happiness rises relatively steeply with income and then plateaus.”

The study states that ultimately, the 2010 study overstated this plateau effect, while the 2021 study failed to find it.

“The two findings that seemed utterly contradictory actually result from data that are amazingly consistent,” Killingsworth said.

Barbara Mellers, the arbiter for the study, pointed to the benefits of adversarial collaborations to resolve scientific conflicts.

Killingsworth adds that the findings have real-world implications, from thinking about tax rates and employee compensation to how people navigate their careers and weigh income against other life priorities.

“Money is just one of the many determinants of happiness,” he said. “Money is not the secret to happiness, but it can probably help a bit.”

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