Untangling the effects of income on happiness

Examining the relationship between income and happiness can be tricky. A recent research study, conducted by two Princeton researchers and summarized by LiveScience, is illustrative of some of the issues in this research field:

-The researchers were working with a large dataset that is built around a daily survey of Americans: “they analyzed more than 450,000 responses to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a daily survey of 1,000 U.S. residents conducted by the Gallup Organization.”

-Changes in income were measured in terms of percentages rather than absolute numbers. This was done to reflect the fact that a percentage change in income would be better for comparisons across income types. As the researchers note: ““In the context of income, a $100 raise does not have the same significance for a financial services executive as for an individual earning the minimum wage, but a doubling of their respective incomes might have a similar impact on both.”

-Survey respondents answered questions related to two measures of happiness: overall life satisfaction and what their emotions were the day before. According to the LiveScience article: “For life evaluation, participants indicated on a scale from zero to 10, from worst to best possible, how they would rate their lives. For emotional well-being, participants answered yes/no questions about whether they had experienced various positive and negative emotions a lot during the prior day.” Having both of these dimensions is critical as a general question about happiness might be interpreted differently (do the reseachers mean happy right now or overall?) by respondents.

-Some of the findings: having a “Low income seemed to magnify the emotional pain of life’s misfortunes, including divorce, illness and loneliness.” However, there was a tipping point of $75,000 where having more money didn’t help improve one’s well-being:

The researchers suggest that making anything more than $75,000 no longer improves a person’s ability to spend time with friends, avoid pain and disease and enjoy leisure time – all factors involved in emotional well-being.

“It also is likely that when income rises beyond this value, the increased ability to purchase positive experiences is balanced, on average, by some negative effects,” they write. For instance, a past study revealed a link between high income and a reduced ability to savor small pleasures, the researchers noted.

This tipping point of $75,000 is above the median income in the United States. I would be curious to know if individuals feel this tipping point when their income does rise to this level – are they cognizant of this point? Or once they reach $75,000, are they still locked into a mindset that having more money will lead to increasing levels of well-being?

Also, this $75,000 point could be quite fluid. Over time, this point would change based on economic conditions and cultural understandings of what is a “good income.”