Money Can’t Buy You Happiness — But It Can Change How You Experience It

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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis

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It’s no secret that people experience happiness in different ways — while some people find pleasure in their material possessions, quality time with friends and family give others more joy. And, now, new research published by the American Psychological Association in the journal Emotion suggests that the dollar amount on one’s paycheck is tied to how they experience happiness. 

Lead author Paul Piff, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine was curious if earning a higher income could lead to greater happiness, atop the many other benefits such as improved health and life satisfaction. “After all, most people think of money as some kind of unmitigated good,” he said, according to Science Daily.

His team of researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,519 people and asked them about their household income, as well as a series of questions that probed their happiness by measuring their tendency to experience seven different emotions—amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride, which the researchers believe make up the core of happiness. To measure compassion, for example, participants rated their agreement with statements such as, “Nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside.” 

The results of the survey show that “in many ways, money does not necessarily buy you happiness,” Dr. Piff explains. He adds that the findings “indicate that wealth is not unequivocally associated with happiness.”

According to the study, people who earn more money tend to experience more positive emotions focused on themselves; meanwhile people who earn less money take greater pleasure in their relationships and their abilities to connect with others. The researchers determined this because participants who sat at the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum tended to experience emotions like contentment, pride and amusement. Those who earned less typically experienced emotions like compassion and love, and poorer people reported experiencing more awe in the world around them. 

“What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness,” Dr. Piff explains, noting that, while higher-income individuals have a desire for independence and self-sufficiency, lower-income individuals form more interdependent bonds with others around them to get by in their more threatening environments. “While wealthier individuals may find greater positivity in their accomplishments, status and individual achievements, less wealthy individuals seem to find more positivity and happiness in their relationships, their ability to care for and connect with others… These findings suggest that lower-income individuals have devised ways to cope, to find meaning, joy and happiness in their lives despite their relatively less favorable circumstances." 

The study did not determine whether income influences the emotions people feel, or if the emotions people feel impact people’s socioeconomic status. In other words, making more money might skew how people experience happiness and make them feel more emotions like pride. But, then again, those with more pride might also be seeking out higher-paying jobs and earning higher salaries because of their values. 

Regardless of the case, having money evidently translates into being able to experience certain types of happiness, but it may also make you less likely to experience other kinds. Think about your own financial situation and the things that make you happy — are you missing out?

If you do make decent dough, it's important to remember that friends do make you happy, too. And research shows that the "tend and befriend" system, for example, is a response to stress that is unique to women. It's triggered when women can excercise their more nurturing sides such as when they're spending time with their friends and families, or in groups of other women with whom they feel connected.

So if you're spending a little too much time and expending a little too much energy stressing to earn more, remember to touch base with your social network for support. It could do you just as much good in the happiness department.


AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.

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