Money won't buy you happiness
Higher income doesn't have a huge
impact on long-term satisfaction
By Matthew Herper
NEW YORK - It's official: Money can't buy any neighbors, they could find themselves isolated
happiness. and depressed.
Sure, if a person is handed $10, the pleasure Other trophies simply don't bring the payoff one
centers of his brain light up as if he were given expects. Says Loewenstein, "If you're a single male
food, sex or drugs. But that initial rush does not driving around in the Ferrari with nobody next to
translate into long-term pleasure for most people. you, it's a glaring omission."
Surveys have found virtually the same level of
happiness between the very rich individuals on the The central problem is that the human brain
Forbes 400 and the Maasai herdsman of East becomes conditioned to positive experiences.
Africa. Lottery winners return to their previous Getting a chunk of unexpected money registers as
level of happiness after five years. Increases in a good thing, but as time passes, the response
income just don't seem to make people happier — wears off. An expected paycheck doesn't bring any
and most negative life experiences likewise have buzz at all — and doesn't contribute to overall
only a small impact on long-term satisfaction. happiness. You can get used to anything, be it
hanging by your toenails or making millions of
dollars a day. Mood may be set more by heredity
"The relationship between money and happiness is
than by anything else: Studies of twins have shown
pretty darned small," says Peter Ubel, a professor
that at least half a person's level of happiness may
of medicine at the University of Michigan.
be determined by some of the genes that play a
role in determining personality.
That's not to say that increased income doesn't
matter at all. There is a very small correlation But this raises another question. How important is
between wealth and happiness — accounting for happiness anyway? People with chronic illnesses
about one percent of the happiness reported by describe themselves as happy, but they would still
people answering surveys. And for some groups, pay large sums for better health. And although
that relationship may be considerably bigger. healthy individuals are not much happier than
People who are poor seem to get much happier quadriplegics, they would pay large sums of
when their monetary prospects improve, as do the money to keep the use of their limbs. Some of
very sick. In these cases, Ubel speculates, people life's most satisfying experiences don't bring
may be protected from negative circumstances by happiness. For instance, having children actually
the extra cash. Another possibility is that the makes people less happy over the short term — but
money brings an increase in status, which may that doesn't necessarily mean we should stop
have a greater impact on happiness. procreating.
Why doesn't wealth bring a constant sense of joy? "I think it's possible to way overestimate the
"Part of the reason is that people aren't very good importance of happiness," says Loewenstein. "Part
at figuring out what to do with the money," says of the meaning of life is to have highs and lows. A
George Loewenstein, an economist at Carnegie life that was constantly happy was not a good life."
Mellon University. People generally overestimate
the amount of long-term pleasure they'll get from a However, there may be at least one important
given object. relationship between money and happiness,
according to Ed Diener, the University of Illinois
Sometimes, Loewenstein notes, the way people researcher who surveyed the Forbes 400 and the
spend their money can actually make them less Maasai. Diener has also written that happy people
happy. For example, people derive a great deal of tend to have higher incomes later on in their lives.
pleasure from interacting with others. If the first So, while money may not help make people happy,
thing lottery winners do is quit their job and move being happy may help them make money.
to a palatial but isolated estate where they don't see