As comedian Spike Milligan famously quipped, “Money can't buy you happiness – but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.”
The first half of that, of course, is total bunk: having money can, in fact, make you much happier than not having it. But what about the rest of it? Are the super-rich really just as likely to be miserable as the rest of us – albeit in a comfier setting? Or does the “more money, more happy” equation hold true even in the upper echelons of income?
A new report out of the Universities of Pennsylvania and Princeton may have the answer – and frankly, the cynics have it. “For most people larger incomes are associated with greater happiness,” confirmed Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Penn’s Wharton School and lead author of the paper, in a statement.
But with that conclusion comes an important caveat: it kind of depends on whether you’re happy in the first place.
“The exception is people who are financially well-off but unhappy,” Killingsworth explained. “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.”
It’s a result that ties together what previously seemed to be rather conflicting results. Work published back in 2010 concluded that money can indeed buy you happiness, but only up to about $75,000 worth of it – after that amount, being richer didn’t really correlate with being happier. Roughly the same result was found in a later study, this time from 2018: that once you have around $75,000 per year, your happiness seems to stop being linked to your wealth.
And yet, other studies seemed to contradict those findings. In fact, Killingsworth’s own work, published in 2021, concluded precisely the opposite: that happiness rises steadily with income well beyond $75,000, without evidence of a plateau. So which is true?
The answer, it turned out, was in the already-existing literature. Taking another look at those studies from 2021 and 2010, the authors built a hypothesis that people would fall into one of two categories: either a larger, happy group, or a smaller, unhappy one. For those in the first cohort, they theorized, happiness would keep rising as more money came in; for those in the latter, happiness would improve with income only up to a point, and then plateau.
If that’s the case, then it puts a different light on those $75,000 figures from before. “The 2010 data showing a plateau in happiness had mostly perfect [happiness] scores,” Killingsworth explained, “so it tells us about the trend in the unhappy end of the happiness distribution, rather than the trend of happiness in general.”
“Once you recognize that, the two seemingly contradictory findings aren’t necessarily incompatible,” he continued. “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.”
So, what were the final results? Well, as suspected, emotional well-being is connected to income – not by a single relationship, but by three.
“The function differs for people with different levels of emotional well-being,” noted the I. George Heyman Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor Barbara Mellers, who co-authored the new paper. For the least happy among us, she explained, happiness rises with income up until a limit of $100,000, then plateaus, while for those with a higher emotional well-being, the association is linear, even after that threshold. And for the happiest of all among us, the relationship between income and happiness actually accelerates after $100,000.
So, can money buy you happiness? It seems the answer is yes – but you have a pretty big advantage if you’re already emotionally healthy to begin with. And even so, Killingsworth pointed out, it’s still perfectly possible to be rich and miserable.
“Money is just one of the many determinants of happiness,” he concluded. “Money is not the secret to happiness, but it can probably help a bit.”
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.