Can Money Buy Happiness? Perhaps…up to a Point

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been told that money cannot buy happiness. Think about it.  All the money in the world won’t reverse the damage inflicted on the people and wildlife of the Gulf Coast (and according to a press release from BP today, the list of responsible parties has grown. It takes a village, after all). Happiness is probably an afterthought in this scenario.  We cannot forget Humpty Dumpty either: All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him back together again. Horses and an army are normally reserved for the wealthiest – even in fairy tales. 

However, this age-old wisdom doesn’t always hold up.  According to research published in this week’s edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people’s emotional well-being increases along with their income up to the tune of $75,000. The lower a person’s annual income falls below that standard, the unhappier he or she reports to feel.  Researchers surveyed 450,000 Americans in 2008-2009 on a variety of questions including household income, emotional state during the prior day and overall feelings about their life and well-being. As for folks earning more than $75,000 (about $120,000, according to the research), their overall sense of success or well-being depends much more on individual temperament and life circumstances.

According to Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, and lead author of the study, “It’s really important to recognize that the word ‘happiness’ covers a lot of ground.  There is your overall evaluation of how your life is going, while the other has to do more with emotional well-being at the moment. Higher incomes don’t seem to have any effect on well-being after around $75,000, whereas your evaluation of your life keeps going up along with income.”

Bingo. This is what I wanted to know. Is it possible to assign a monetary amount to “happiness?” Some people value possessions over experiences, goods over services and themselves over others.  When it comes to happiness, I don’t think that there is a monetary benchmark.   

Studies like this irk me a bit. When I read the coverage online and then heard the segment on the Nightly News, I had a feeling that there might be people (some of my people for sure) thinking that money does indeed buy happiness – the research proves it.  I don’t buy it. No pun intended.

Will having more money encourage people to like their lives better or feel better on a day to day basis?  Abraham Lincoln said that a person is just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.  Definitely a billion dollar challenge, but it seems about right to me.  Props to President Lincoln.

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