Yes, money can buy hap­pi­ness, more so than ever

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY JEAN TWENGE Jean Twenge is a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at San Diego State Univer­sity.

Many fac­tors de­ter­mine hap­pi­ness, but one has stirred con­sid­er­able con­tro­versy over the years: money. While the adage says that money can’t buy hap­pi­ness, sev­eral stud­ies have deter­mined that the more your in­come in­creases, the hap­pier you are, up un­til $75,000 a year. Af­ter hit­ting that thresh­old, more in­come doesn’t make a dif­fer­ence.

But in a new anal­y­sis of more than 40,000 U.S. adults aged 30 and over, my col­league and I found an even deeper re­la­tion­ship be­tween money and hap­pi­ness.

Be­cause the sur­vey data spanned five decades, from 1972 to 2016, we were also able to see if the link be­tween money and hap­pi­ness changed over the years. That’s where things got in­ter­est­ing: To­day, money and hap­pi­ness are more strongly re­lated than they were in the past. It seems money buys more hap­pi­ness than it used to.

How did this hap­pen?

A strik­ing class di­vide

We de­cided to look at hap­pi­ness trends through the lens of class, specif­i­cally via in­come and ed­u­ca­tion.

Among white Amer­i­cans in the 1970s, adults with and with­out a col­lege de­gree were equally likely to say they were “very happy” — around 40%. But by the 2010s, there was an ed­u­ca­tion gap in hap­pi­ness: Only 29% of those with­out a de­gree said they were very happy, com­pared with 40% of those with a de­gree. The same was true for in­come: The dif­fer­ence in hap­pi­ness by in­come level grew steadily larger from the 1970s to the 2010s.

The hap­pi­ness of Black Amer­i­cans with more ed­u­ca­tion and in­come in­creased from the 1970s to the 2010s, while the hap­pi­ness of those with less ed­u­ca­tion and in­come stayed steady. Thus, a small hap­pi­ness gap by in­come level in the 1970s be­came a larger gap by the 2010s for Black Amer­i­cans.

Fur­ther­more, un­like pre­vi­ous stud­ies, there was no hap­pi­ness plateau or sat­u­ra­tion at higher lev­els of in­come. For ex­am­ple, adults mak­ing $160,000 or more a year in 2020 dol­lars were hap­pier than those mak­ing be­tween $115,000 and $160,000.

Less isn’t more

There are likely many rea­sons for these trends. For one, in­come in­equal­ity has grown: The rich have got­ten richer, and the poor have got­ten poorer. To­day the av­er­age com­pany CEO makes 271 times the salary of a typ­i­cal worker, up from 30 times more in 1978. While it was once pos­si­ble to buy a house and sup­port a fam­ily with a high school ed­u­ca­tion, that has be­come in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult.

In a so­ci­ety with more in­come in­equal­ity, the gulf be­tween the “haves” and the “have nots” is more stark, with fewer be­long­ing to the mid­dle class. That’s par­tially be­cause the cost of many key needs, such as hous­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and health care, have out­paced in­fla­tion, and salaries haven’t kept up even as work­ers be­came more pro­duc­tive.

Mar­riage rates may also ex­plain part of the trend. In the 1970s, mar­riage rates hardly dif­fered by class, but now those with more in­come and ed­u­ca­tion are more likely to be mar­ried than those with less. Mar­ried peo­ple are hap­pier on av­er­age than un­mar­ried peo­ple. When we con­trolled for mar­riage rates, the trend to­ward a grow­ing class di­vide in hap­pi­ness less­ened — though it still re­mained, sug­gest­ing sev­eral fac­tors were at work.

The road ahead

In 2015, a widely cir­cu­lated pa­per found that the death rate for white Amer­i­cans with­out a col­lege de­gree was in­creas­ing. Many of these deaths were what the re­searchers called “deaths of de­spair,” in­clud­ing sui­cide and drug over­doses. If any­thing, the class di­vide in well-be­ing has grown even larger dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­demic, as lower-in­come Amer­i­cans were more likely to lose their jobs. All of this ev­i­dence sug­gests that the class di­vide in both phys­i­cal and men­tal health is large and grow­ing in the U.S.

Politi­cians are be­gin­ning to rec­og­nize this, with more sup­port­ing the idea of univer­sal ba­sic in­come, in which all cit­i­zens re­ceive a set amount of money from the gov­ern­ment each month. Andrew Yang gained trac­tion in the 2020 Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial pri­maries par­tially through his sup­port of univer­sal ba­sic in­come, and more may­ors across the coun­try are ex­per­i­ment­ing with guar­an­teed in­come.

As a gen­eral rule, stark di­vi­sions by class have a neg­a­tive im­pact on the well-be­ing of a so­ci­ety. One study found that peo­ple liv­ing in coun­tries with more in­come in­equal­ity were less happy. In a na­tion al­ready deeply po­lar­ized, these grow­ing class di­vi­sions will likely only make mat­ters worse. As the 2020 elec­tion ap­proaches, po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns must rec­og­nize the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of these sharp class di­vides.

The na­tion’s hap­pi­ness and well-be­ing are at stake.


Stacks of $100 bills at the Bureau of En­grav­ing and Print­ing in Washington, D.C.

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