How Much Money Do You Need to Be Happy? A New Study Gives Us Some Exact Figures

“If I gave you a mil­lion dol­lars, would you…?” (insert pos­si­bly life-alter­ing risk, humil­i­a­tion, or soul-sell­ing crime here). What about ten mil­lion? 100 mil­lion? One BILLION dol­lars? Put anoth­er way, in the terms social sci­en­tists use these days, how much mon­ey is enough to make you hap­py?

If you’re Mont­gomery Burns, it’s at least a bil­lion dol­lars, lest you be forced to suf­fer the tor­ments of the Millionaire’s Camp. (“Just kill me now!”) As it tends to do, The Simp­sons’ dark humor nails the insa­tiable greed that seems the scourge of our time, when the rich­est 1 per­cent take 82 per­cent of the world’s wealth, and the poor­est 50 per­cent get noth­ing at all.

Hypo­thet­i­cal wind­falls aside, the ques­tion of how much is enough is an urgent one for many peo­ple: as in, how much to feed a fam­i­ly, sup­ply life’s neces­si­ties, pur­chase just enough leisure for some small degree of per­son­al ful­fil­ment?

As the mis­ery of Mon­ty Burns demon­strates, we have a sense of the 1% as eter­nal­ly unful­filled. He’s the wicked heir to more seri­ous trag­ic fig­ures like Charles Fos­ter Kane and Jay Gats­by. But satire is one thing, and desire, that linch­pin of the econ­o­my, is anoth­er.

“What we see on TV and what adver­tis­ers tell us we need would indi­cate there is no ceil­ing when it comes to how much mon­ey is need­ed for hap­pi­ness,” says Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty psy­chol­o­gist Andrew T. Jebb, “but we now see there are some thresh­olds.” In short: mon­ey is a good thing, but there is such a thing as too much of it.

Jebb and his col­leagues from Pur­due and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia addressed ques­tions in their study “Hap­pi­ness, income sati­a­tion and turn­ing points around the world” like, “Does hap­pi­ness rise indef­i­nite­ly with income, or is there a point at which high­er incomes no longer lead to greater well­be­ing?” What they found in data from an inter­na­tion­al Gallup World Poll sur­vey of over 1.7 mil­lion peo­ple in 164 coun­tries varies wide­ly across the world.

Peo­ple in wealth­i­er areas seem to require more income for hap­pi­ness (or “Sub­jec­tive Well Being” in the social sci­ence ter­mi­nol­o­gy). In many parts of the world, high­er incomes, “beyond satiation”—a met­ric that mea­sures how much is enough—“are asso­ci­at­ed with low­er life eval­u­a­tions.” The authors also note that “a recent study at the coun­try lev­el found a slight but sig­nif­i­cant decline in life eval­u­a­tion” among very high earn­ers “in the rich­est coun­tries.”

You can see the wide vari­ance in hap­pi­ness world­wide in the “Hap­pi­ness” study. As Dan Kopf notes at Quartz, these research find­ings are con­sis­tent with those of oth­er researchers of hap­pi­ness and income, though they go into much more detail. Prob­lems with the method­ol­o­gy of these studies—primarily their reliance on self-report­ed data—make them vul­ner­a­ble to sev­er­al cri­tiques.

But, assum­ing they demon­strate real quan­ti­ties, what, on aver­age, do they tell us? “We found that the ide­al income point,” aver­aged out in U.S. dol­lars, “is $95,000 for [over­all life sat­is­fac­tion],” says Jebb, “and $60,000 to $75,000 for emo­tion­al well-being,” a mea­sure of day-to-day hap­pi­ness. These are, mind you, indi­vid­ual incomes and “would like­ly be high­er for fam­i­lies,” he says.

Peter Dock­rill at Sci­ence Alert sum­ma­rizes some oth­er inter­est­ing find­ings: “Glob­al­ly, it’s cheap­er for men to be sat­is­fied with their lives ($90,000) than women ($100,000), and for peo­ple of low ($70,000) or mod­er­ate edu­ca­tion ($85,000) than peo­ple with high­er edu­ca­tion ($115,000).”

Yes, the study, like those before it, shows that after the “sati­a­tion point,” hap­pi­ness decreas­es, though per­haps not to Mon­ty Burns lev­els of dis­sat­is­fac­tion. But where does this leave most of us in the new Gild­ed Age? Giv­en that “sati­a­tion” in the U.S. is around $105K, with day-to-day hap­pi­ness around $85K, the major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans fall well below the hap­pi­ness line. The medi­an salary for U.S. work­ers at the end of 2017 was $44, 564, accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics. Man­agers and pro­fes­sion­als aver­aged $64,220 and ser­vice work­ers around $28,000. (As you might imag­ine, income inequal­i­ty diverged sharply along racial lines.)

And while the mid­dle class saw a slight bump in income in the last cou­ple years, medi­an house­hold income was still only $59,039 in 2016. How­ev­er, we mea­sure it the “mid­dle class… has been declin­ing for four decades,” admits Busi­ness Insid­er—“iden­ti­fy­ing with the mid­dle class is, in part, a state of mind” rather than a state of debt-to-income ratios. (One study shows that Mil­len­ni­als make 20% less than Baby Boomers did at the same age.) Mean­while, as wealth increas­es at the top, “the country’s bot­tom 20% of earn­ers became worse off.”

This may all sound like bad news for the hap­pi­ness quo­tient of the major­i­ty, if hap­pi­ness (or Sub­jec­tive Well Being) requires a cer­tain amount of mate­r­i­al secu­ri­ty. Maybe one pos­i­tive take­away is that it doesn’t require near­ly the amount of vast pri­vate wealth that has accu­mu­lat­ed in the hands of a very few peo­ple. Accord­ing to this research, sig­nif­i­cant­ly redis­trib­ut­ing that wealth might actu­al­ly make the wealthy a lit­tle hap­pi­er, and less Mr. Burns-like, even as it raised hap­pi­ness stan­dards a great deal for mil­lions of oth­ers.

Not only are high­er incomes “usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied by high­er demands,” as Jebb and his col­leagues conclude—on one’s time, and per­haps on one’s conscience—but “addi­tion­al fac­tors” may also play a role in decreas­ing hap­pi­ness as incomes rise, includ­ing “an increase in mate­ri­al­is­tic val­ues, addi­tion­al mate­r­i­al aspi­ra­tions that may go unful­filled, increased social com­par­isons,” etc. The long­stand­ing tru­ism about mon­ey not buy­ing love—or ful­fill­ment, mean­ing, peace of mind, what-have-you—may well just be true.

You can dig fur­ther into Andrew T. Jeb­b’s study here: “Hap­pi­ness, income sati­a­tion and turn­ing points around the world.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

What Are the Keys to Hap­pi­ness?: Take “The Sci­ence of Well-Being,” a Free Online Ver­sion of Yale’s Most Pop­u­lar Course

Albert Einstein’s Ele­gant The­o­ry of Hap­pi­ness: It Just Sold for $1.6 Mil­lion at Auc­tion, But You Can Use It for Free

Will You Real­ly Achieve Hap­pi­ness If You Final­ly Win the Rat Race? Don’t Answer the Ques­tion Until You’ve Watched Steve Cutts’ New Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Sanjeev Khanna says:

    More than mon­ey a pur­pose in life is need­ed to be real­ly hap­py. Mon­ey cis a mea­sure of social hap­pi­ness.

  • bob says:

    Gats­by did it all for Daisy.

  • bob says:

    Gats­by did it all for Daisy

  • Dennis says:

    Inter­est­ing out­look that “…the rich­est 1 per­cent TAKE 82 per­cent of the world’s wealth.”
    How about “… the rich­est 1 per­cent GENERATE 82 per­cent of the world’s wealth.” ?
    If a per­son­’s wealth increas­es by $1 mil­lion in a year it does­n’t mean they took it from some­one else.
    Cap­i­tal­ism is the cure for pover­ty, not class envy.
    And iron­i­cal­ly (and unfor­tu­nate­ly) the first is out-of-favor while the lat­ter thrives.

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