MADRID, 18 Mar. (EUROPA PRESS) -
Are people who earn more money happier in everyday life? Although it seems like a simple question, the research carried out so far has produced conflicting results, so the answer remains uncertain.
A foundational paper published in 2010 by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton of Princeton University in the United States had found that everyday happiness increased as annual income increased, but above $75,000 it leveled off and happiness dropped. stagnated By contrast, work published in 2021 by Matthew Killingsworth of the University of Pennsylvania found that happiness rose steadily with income above $75,000, with no evidence of a plateau.
To reconcile the differences, the two paired off in what's known as an adversarial collaboration, joining forces with Penn University Integrates Knowledge professor Barbara Mellers as arbitrator. In a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the trio show that, on average, higher incomes are associated with increasing levels of happiness.
Zooming in, however, the relationship becomes more complex, revealing that within that general trend, an unhappy cohort within each income group shows a sharp increase in happiness up to $100,000 per year and then levels off.
"In simpler terms, this suggests that for most people higher income is associated with higher happiness," says Killingsworth, a professor at the Wharton School in Pennsylvania and the paper's lead author. "The exception is people who have a good economic situation but are unhappy. For example, if you are rich and miserable, more money will not help you," he says. For everyone else, more money was associated with greater happiness to somewhat varying degrees.
Mellers elaborates on this last notion, noting that emotional well-being and income are not connected by a single relationship. "The function differs for people with different levels of emotional well-being," she says. Specifically, for the least happy group, happiness increases with income up to $100,000, and then shows no increase as income increases. For those in the middle range of emotional well-being, happiness increases linearly with income, and for the happiest group the association accelerates above $100,000.
The researchers began this combined effort by acknowledging that their previous work had reached different conclusions. Kahneman's 2010 study showed a flattening pattern, while Killingsworth's 2021 study did not. As the name suggests, such an adversarial collaboration -- a notion originated by Kahneman -- aims to resolve scientific disputes or disagreements by bringing the disagreeing parties together, along with an external mediator.
Killingsworth, Kahneman, and Mellers focused on a new hypothesis that there is both a happy majority and an unhappy minority. For the former, they surmised, happiness keeps increasing as more money comes in; the happiness of the second improves as income increases, but only up to a certain income threshold, beyond which it progresses no further.
To test this new hypothesis, they looked for the flattening pattern in data from Killingworth's study, which he had collected through an app he created called Track Your Happiness. Several times a day, the app asks participants at random times how they feel on a scale from "very good" to "very bad." By averaging a person's happiness and income, Killingsworth draws conclusions about the relationship between the two variables.
A breakthrough in the new association came early on, when the researchers realized that the 2010 data, which had revealed the happiness plateau, had actually been measuring unhappiness in particular and not happiness in general. "It's easier to understand with an example," Killingsworth says. "Imagine a cognitive test to detect dementia that most healthy people pass with ease. Although such a test could detect the presence and severity of cognitive dysfunction, it would not reveal much about general intelligence, since most healthy people would receive the same perfect score," he introduces.
"Similarly, the 2010 data showing a plateau in happiness had mostly perfect scores, so it tells us about the trend at the unhappy end of the happiness distribution, rather than the trend for happiness." in general. Once this is recognized, the two seemingly contradictory results are not necessarily incompatible," says Killingsworth.
What they discovered corroborated that possibility "in an incredibly beautiful way," according to the researcher. "When we look at the trend in the happiness of unhappy people in the 2021 data, we find exactly the same pattern that was found in 2010; happiness rises relatively steeply with income and then levels off," he says. "The two findings that seemed totally contradictory are actually the result of amazingly consistent data," he says.
According to Killingsworth, these conclusions have real-world implications. On the one hand, they could serve to reflect on tax rates or how to compensate employees. And, of course, they are important to people when choosing their career or weighing higher income against other priorities in life, Killingsworth says.
However, he adds that, for emotional well-being, money is not everything. "Money is just one of the many determinants of happiness. Money isn't the secret to happiness, but it can probably help a little," he says.