Story at a glance

  • ”Money can’t buy happiness,” is a common lesson taught to children.
  • A new study suggests that may not actually be the case, at least in the United States.
  • Researchers found that higher incomes may improve people’s day-to-day well-being.

It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? At some point in your life, someone’s probably told you that “one can’t buy happiness,” likely to encourage you to be content with what you have. Research has already shown that isn’t true, but a new study suggests that you might even be infinitely happier with money. 

"It's a compelling possibility, the idea that money stops mattering above that point, at least for how people actually feel moment to moment," Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at Penn's Wharton School and author of the study, told Medical Press. "But when I looked across a wide range of income levels, I found that all forms of well-being continued to rise with income. I don't see any sort of kink in the curve, an inflection point where money stops mattering. Instead, it keeps increasing."  


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The study focused on experienced well-being, which is how you feel at particular moments in life, rather than evaluative well-being, which is how you feel after further reflection. Past studies have concluded that while a higher income generally improves your evaluation of your life, your emotional well-being stops improving after an income of $75,000. But this research was based on how people remembered feeling throughout the day, rather than how they felt in the moment. 

With the help of smartphones, Killingsworth was able to collect real time reports from 33,391 employed adults in the United States and found that both measures of well-being did not diverge, potentially increasing infinitely with income. 


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"When you have more money, you have more choices about how to live your life. You can likely see this in the pandemic. People living paycheck to paycheck who lose their job might need to take the first available job to stay afloat, even if it's one they dislike. People with a financial cushion can wait for one that's a better fit. Across decisions big and small, having more money gives a person more choices and a greater sense of autonomy," Killingsworth told Medical Press. 

Of course, this debate raises the question of how we define happiness. The survey asked “how do you feel right now?” on a scale of "very bad" to "very good" to measure experienced well-being, and "overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” on a scale of "not at all" to "extremely” to measure evaluative well-being. But the study’s author noted that the answers also reflected how much people considered money as a measure of their satisfaction and contentment.

"If anything, people probably overemphasize money when they think about how well their life is going," Killingsworth told Medical Press. "Yes, this is a factor that might matter in a way that we didn't fully realize before, but it's just one of many that people can control and ultimately, it's not one I'm terribly concerned people are undervaluing."


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Published on Jan 25, 2021