Money and happiness

Can money buy happiness?  These people, waiting for hours to buy lottery tickets, seem to think so, or at least are willing to test the hypothesis (turn off your sound — the commentary is annoying):

What does science say?  The short answer is that money can buy happiness, at least up to a point.  The long answer is quite complicated.

A good starting point for discussion is this famous paper by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, based on Gallup surveys of US residents. From the abstract:

When plotted against log income, life evaluation rises steadily. Emotional well-being also rises with log income, but there is no further progress beyond an annual income of ∼$75,000.

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25 thoughts on “Money and happiness

  1. Food, clothing, shelter, heath. When these are seriously in doubt, unhappiness follows. Putting a fixed number is silly. The number differs from country to country, region to region, city to city.

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  2. petrushka,

    Food, clothing, shelter, heath. When these are seriously in doubt, unhappiness follows.

    Sure, but none of those are “seriously in doubt” for a typical American making, say, $65,000 per year as opposed someone making $75,000. Yet that income difference is associated with a non-trivial difference in emotional well-being.

    Putting a fixed number is silly. The number differs from country to country, region to region, city to city.

    That’s like saying that it’s silly to report average incomes, because incomes differ from person to person, region to region, and city to city.

    There is useful information in the ~$75,000 number even if it doesn’t mean that Stephen Harshaw of Dubuque, Iowa should stop angling for raises once his income increases from $74,999 to $75,000.

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  3. States don’t seem that disparate, but try living in New York City or San Francisco.

    Where I live, you can buy a 5000 square foot house on a half acre lot for well under half a million. That will get you 1200 square feet in a bad neighborhood in new York.

    I have noticed that grocery prices are only slightly higher in Manhattan. Pretty remarkable, actually.

    But my state has no income taxes. My son pays about 50 percent in state, city and federal tax.

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  4. Like a wise man once noted:

    Money isn’t everything but it sure has a big lead on whatever is in second place. 🙂

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  5. YES. money buys happiness. its not the money but the stuff it gives you. to say our modern people are not happier then the ancients is obviously false.
    Money takes away things that interfere with happy.
    it brings happy.
    The big thing is that happiness is MORE based on ones god relationship, people, health, hope. yet money is right there too.
    who says another hundred thousand would make them unhappier or neutral.
    They would all smile if they got a hundred thou given tio them.
    ‘Experiment. all posters on TSZ give me 250 bucks and when summed I will recrod if i’m happier.

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  6. “Money may not buy you happiness but it can buy you a boat big enough so you can pull up next to it” unknown

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  7. One of the sad asymmetries of psychology is that the pain inflicted by a loss can far outweigh the happiness bestowed by an equivalent gain:

    The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that even something as simple as a coin toss demonstrates our aversion to loss. In a recent interviews, Mr. Kahneman shared the usual response he gets to his offer of a coin toss:

    “In my classes, I say: ‘I’m going to toss a coin, and if it’s tails, you lose $10. How much would you have to gain on winning in order for this gamble to be acceptable to you?’

    “People want more than $20 before it is acceptable. And now I’ve been doing the same thing with executives or very rich people, asking about tossing a coin and losing $10,000 if it’s tails. And they want $20,000 before they’ll take the gamble.”

    Here’s an extreme example where the gain never really happened, but the corresponding “loss” is understandably felt quite acutely:

    British couple misses out on nearly $52M Lotto jackpot because of a technical glitch

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  8. GlenDavidson: At least if you had enough money you might not end up in that line.

    Works the other way too. When you have no money at all, you have nothing to do in that line.

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  9. Sam Harris states (and I agree strongly) that we, as individuals, are poor predictors of what will make us happy. Money is useful only in that it is the abstract fulfillment of a nearly unlimited number of desires. It is the only resource that can be transformed into a means of satisfying almost any interest.

    Once the basic requirements of comfort are attained, the fine balance between “need” and “want” probably works against happiness rather than for it.

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  10. RoyLT:

    Sam Harris states (and I agree strongly) that we, as individuals, are poor predictors of what will make us happy.

    Yes, and research bears that out.

    It’s interesting to think about this from a Darwinian perspective. Selection will “value” happiness only to the extent that it promotes behaviors leading to greater reproductive success. It’s our beliefs about what will make us happy that influence our decisions; the reality about what makes us happy can only influence our decisions via those beliefs.

    When those beliefs become inaccurate, it obviously affects us as individuals by making us less successful in our pursuit of happiness. But the fact that we are less happy is of no direct “concern” to evolution, as long as we continue to engage in behaviors that promote reproductive success.

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  11. RoyLT:

    Money is useful only in that it is the abstract fulfillment of a nearly unlimited number of desires. It is the only resource that can be transformed into a means of satisfying almost any interest.

    The fact that money is so fungible makes it crucial to figure out how to deploy it well. I’m glad science is taking the question seriously, yielding insights such as

    Buy Experiences, Not Things

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  12. keiths: It’s interesting to think about this from a Darwinian perspective.

    Agreed. I like your insight on evolution not caring about happiness as such. From the standpoint of pure reproduction, those of my acquaintance who are generally the least happy seem to be more likely to make drastic life changes to try and ‘shake things up’. We all know that the fastest way to fix a broken marriage is by having a baby…

    Nice article. It reminds me of several articles that I’ve seen lately referencing the recent study showing that people who value time over money tend to be more happy on average. I think the study was published in “Social Psychological and Personal Science” but I don’t have a link for it.

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  13. keiths: It’s our beliefs about what will make us happy that influence our decisions; the reality about what makes us happy can only influence our decisions via those beliefs.

    That seems right to me only so long as “beliefs” is taken very broadly–i.e., to include both unconscious events and dispositions to act that may not actually be associated with any occurrent process, conscious or unconscious. If “belief” is taken more narrowly, then it’s not unreasonable to say that other “realities” are affecting our “decisions” (which, too, may be unconscious).

    FWIW, I particularly like this Dan Gilbert TED Talk on happiness, which I’ve used in a class.

    https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy?language=en

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  14. RoyLT:

    Nice article. It reminds me of several articles that I’ve seen lately referencing the recent study showing that people who value time over money tend to be more happy on average.

    I hope that’s right. I’m planning an early retirement this year precisely because I think the extra time will make me happier than the money I’ll be forgoing.

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  15. keiths:

    It’s our beliefs about what will make us happy that influence our decisions; the reality about what makes us happy can only influence our decisions via those beliefs.

    walto:

    That seems right to me only so long as “beliefs” is taken very broadly–i.e., to include both unconscious events and dispositions to act that may not actually be associated with any occurrent process, conscious or unconscious.

    Yes, I’m thinking in those broader terms. But my point is that it’s the results of our beliefs that matter as far as selection is concerned. The accuracy of those beliefs is secondary and matters only to the extent that it boosts reproductive success on average.

    Proponents of the EAAN and similar arguments seize upon this, but I think they overplay their hand.

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  16. RoyLT,

    I found the paper:

    Valuing time over money is associated with greater happiness

    Here’s the abstract:

    Abstract

    How do the trade-offs that we make about two of our most valuable resources –time and money — shape happiness? While past research has documented the immediate consequences of thinking about time and money, research has not yet examined whether people’s general orientations to prioritize time over money are associated with greater happiness. In the current research, we develop the Resource Orientation Measure (ROM) to assess people’s stable preferences to prioritize time over money. Next, using data from students, adults recruited from the community, and a representative sample of employed Americans, we show that the ROM is associated with greater well-being. These findings could not be explained by materialism, material striving, current feelings of time or material affluence, or demographic characteristics such as income or marital status. Across six studies (N=4,690), we provide the first empirical evidence that prioritizing time over money is a stable preference related to greater subjective well-being.

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  17. keiths: my point is that it’s the results of our beliefs that matter as far as selection is concerned. The accuracy of those beliefs is secondary and matters only to the extent that it boosts reproductive success on average.

    Agreed. In fact, I think that perspective is similar to what I argued for in my OP here regarding placebos and Newcomb’s Paradox.

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  18. Rich:

    Give a homeless man $20 or take $20 from him and it’s a big deal. I doubt a millionaire would feel the same way.

    Yes. See the description of the Kahneman and Tversky coin-toss experiment here.

    They made the bet 1,000 times bigger so it would be meaningful to richer people. Interestingly, though, the loss aversion ratio remained about the same. It took a 2x gain to balance a 1x loss.

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