Money can’t buy happiness, right? Wrong. According to a new study, money can most certainly buy happiness.
The study, conducted by Penn’s Wharton School’s senior fellow Matthew Killingsworth, shows that people are now equating well-being and happiness at a higher rate than previously thought. “It’s one of the most studied questions in my field,” says Killingsworth, who studies human happiness. “I’m very curious about it. Other scientists are curious about it. Laypeople are curious about it. It’s something everyone is navigating all the time.”
In an effort to prove his point, the senior fellow asked over 33,000 participants to provide in-the-moment snapshots of their feelings during their daily lives. From this, Killingsworth put together a paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which confirmed the fact that yes, money does lead to happiness.
Killingsworth used something he calls “experience sampling” for his study, a technique that asks people to repeatedly fill out short surveys throughout random times during their daily life. “It tells us what’s actually happening in people’s real lives as they live them, in millions of moments as they work and chat and eat and watch TV,” he explained to Medical Express. While the previous studies attempting to link money and happiness focused on the overall satisfaction of life, Killingsworth wanted to focus on both the experience and evaluative well-being, the former indicating just how people feel in the moment.
He had participants use an app – Track Your Happiness – that he created, and they would record their daily experienced well-being a few times a day by answering questions such as “How do you feel right now?” Answers given would range from “very bad” to “very good.” Then, at least one time during the survey, participants would have to answer. “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” This was ranked on a scale of “not at all” to “extremely” and was a sample of evaluative well-being.
“This process provided repeated snapshots of people’s lives, which collectively gives us a composite image, a stop-motion movie of their lives,” he explained. “Scientists often talk about trying to get a representative sample of the population,” he added. “I was trying to get a representative sample of the moments of people’s lives.” By looking into how people lived their lives, Killingsworth could figure out what brought happiness to these people.
Killingsworth took all this information and calculated the average level of well-being for each person in the study, then analyzed it compared to their income. His goal was to confirm a 2010 paper that suggested that once household income hits $75,000, experienced well-being plateaus, and that money does influence happiness. What he proved, instead, was that there was no plateau. “It’s a compelling possibility, the idea that money stops mattering above that point, at least for how people actually feel moment to moment,” he says. “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.”
What his study has shown is that the more money one has, the more control they have over their lives, and with that control comes happiness. The sense of not having to worry about money seems to be how money does lead to happiness. “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.”
Yet Killingsworth also noted that “Although money might be good for happiness, I found that people who equated money and success were less happy than those who didn’t. I also found that people who earned more money worked longer hours and felt more pressed for time.”
So, while money can buy happiness, it doesn’t necessarily buy the freedom that should come along with it. More work hours to make more money equals more stress and loneliness. Ultimately, Killingworth doesn’t feel people should focus solely on money-making them happy. “If anything, people probably overemphasize money when they think about how well their life is going,” says Killingsworth. “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.”
Though Killingsworth feels this study is important, it is only one more step forward in finding, what he calls, the “equation for human happiness.”