Before I simply bellow FUCK YES in an infantile manner and sign off it is worth having a look at what the literature says about the impact of wealth not only on your psychological wellbeing but also upon your general health, life outcomes and overall demeanour. Two papers I recently read looked at this topic from slightly different angles and both are worth looking at in some depth. Paul K Piff and Jake Moskowitz authored a paper titled – Wealth, Poverty, and Happiness: Social Class Is Differentially Associated With Positive Emotions.
The central thrust of the paper is well served by its abstract –
Is higher social class associated with greater happiness? In a large nationally representative U.S. sample(N 1,519), we examined the association between social class (household income) and self-reported tendencies to experience 7 distinct positive emotions that are core to happiness: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love, and pride. Consistent with past research indicating that social class underlies differential patterns of attending to the self versus orienting to others, higher social class was associated with greater self-oriented feelings of contentment and pride, and with greater amusement. In contrast, lower social class was associated with more other-oriented feelings of compassion and love, and with greater awe. There were no class differences in enthusiasm. We discuss that individuals from different social class backgrounds may exhibit different patterns of emotional responding due to their distinct social concerns and priorities. Whereas self-oriented emotions may follow from ,foster, and reinforce upper class individuals’ desire for independence and self-sufficiency, greater other-oriented emotion may enable lower class individuals to form more interdependent bonds to cope with their more threatening environments.
It has been a long accepted notion that greater wealth is associated with better life outcomes in terms of longevity, overall health and some aspects of mental and emotional security. It is to be expected that if you were under constant financial pressure that your health both physical and emotional would suffer. Associated with this broad assumption was the idea that less well-off individuals therefore reported less positive emotions and because of this less happiness. Because of this we have the simplistic dichotomy of rich good, poor bad.
However, Piff and Moskowitz quite rightly point out that this a simplistic equation and doesn’t unpack the multifaceted nature of what is either positive life satisfaction or the more philosophical question of what is happiness. In their paper they point out that whilst the rich are more satisfied with their life this relationship is not a simple linear function and that wellbeing can be broken down into component parts such as the frequency and intensity of emotional experiences such as joy pride and love. When this is done the association between wealth and one’s perception of their own happiness becomes more complex and not as obvious as one would think.
In their own research Piff and Moskowitz sought to investigate this relationship and in doing so found something interesting. They found that upper class individuals did report greater self-oriented feelings of pride and contentment along with greater amusement. But lower class individuals reported greater feelings of compassion, love and awe. It is worth considering this notion of self-focussed versus other focussed that appears in this research. It is thought that because of their greater resources wealthy people are insulated from many of social and environmental shocks that buffet people who are not as well off. This leads an internally directed focus where individual goals are more important because there is reduced reliance upon others. Contrastingly those who are not so well off are often buffeted by their social environment and therefore must be more aware of the societal threats around them. This leads to a group centric focus where understanding the nuances of the social world around them is a useful survival skill.
Part of Piff and Moskowitz conclusion sums this differential up –
Why is social class associated with the frequency and intensity of experiences of particular positive self-oriented versus other-oriented emotions? Whereas pride and contentment may reflect upper class individuals’ desire for independence and self-sufficiency, increased love and compassion may help lower class individuals form more harmonious, interdependent bonds to help cope with their more threatening environments—an intriguing avenue for future research. This accords with treatments of positive emotion as providing, in part, viable means for acquiring necessary resources.
Within this entire discussion of wealth and happiness has always been an implicit assumption that once someone’s basic needs are met then incremental gains in wealth generate correspondingly smaller and smaller impacts upon happiness. It has always been assumed that this threshold was at around $US75,000. It is thought that this threshold exists because once you get beyond this point most of life’s needs are met. However, there is a problem with this research, nobody seems to have taken time to ask the rich. Surveys that sought to gather data on this question relied upon self-reporting – that is filling out a questionnaire. Apparently, the wealthy are notoriously bad at filling in surveys. To overcome this problem Grant Donnelly, Tianyi Zhang, Emily Haisley and Michale I Norton in a paper titled The Amount and Source of Millionaires’ Wealth (Moderately) Predicts Their Happiness sought to overcome this methodological flaw by surveying a financial institutions high net worth customers about their perceived level of happiness.
The data collected is quite interesting in that it does point the finger at greater wealth generating greater happiness. The notion that the relationship between happiness and wealth tends to flatten out at $US75,000 does not seem to hold true. Individuals who reported a net worth of more than $US10M reported greater happiness than those with a net worth of $US1M to $US2M. However, there does seem to be a caveat within the results. It seems that it is substantially greater wealth that generates this increase in happiness – there seems to be a doldrum zone below $US8M where the effect is quite modest. In addition to this the mechanism by which wealth is accumulated also has a bearing on happiness. Individuals who earned their money report greater satisfaction than those who inherited it. This raises the question of why greater wealth generates greater happiness and this is something Donnelly et al attempt to answer –
Why might greater wealth lead to greater happiness among millionaires? Diener, Horwitz and Emmon’s (1985) study of millionaires shows that the wealthy believe that money increases their happiness when used to help others and the world, and that money provides increased freedom to choose leisure activities and friends. Indeed, wealth enables people to take greater control of their lives, by giving the wealthy greater autonomy over how they choose to spend their time (Gallo & Matthews, 2003; Kraus,
Piff, Mendoza-Denton, Rheinschmidt, & Keltner, 2012), and such feelings have been associated with higher life satisfaction (Howell & Howell, 2008). While a number of researchers have cited need theory to explain the diminishing marginal effect of wealth and well-being (e.g., Howell & Howell, 2008), perhaps at the higher end, wealth increases millionaires’ sense of efficacy in carrying out goals (Lachman & Weaver,1998). In addition, it is possible that wealth helps millionaires’ to achieve the fundamental human goal of high status (Anderson, Hildreth, & Howland, 2015). While our datasets do not allow us to examine these potential mediating processes, we hope thatfuture research explores these issues in more depth.
This in some ways ties in with the research of Piff and Maskowitz in that wealthy people are self directed and the increased ability to be self directed and at the same time assist others increases life satisfaction. My own anecdotal experience tallies with this as I have noticed that the best way to make a rich person unhappy is to make them poor. I have observed that it is not the loss of status that causes emotional issues but rather the loss of control. Money generates options and options present choice – these choices are unavailable to people without wealth. They are at the mercy of the decisions of others and often these decisions are capricious and not in their best interests, but they have no other alternative but to accept them. And this brings us to my view about does money buy happiness and my answer is an unequivocal yes, of this I have no doubt. The majority of people who do well in life do not start out well off, there are exceptions, but they are a rarity and if you ask someone who is well off which state of affairs would they prefer being poor and starting again with nothing or being where they are now the majority of answering honestly would say no.