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Can money buy happiness? Only so much, researchers say

December 10, 2006|Malcolm Ritter | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Does money buy happiness?

It's sometimes said that scientists have found no relationship between money and happiness, but that's a myth, says University of Illinois psychologist Ed Diener.

The connection is complex, he says. But very rich people rate substantially higher in satisfaction with life than very poor people, even within wealthy nations, he says.

"There is overwhelming evidence that money buys happiness," said economist Andrew J. Oswald of the University of Warwick in England. The main debate, he said, is how strong the effect is.

Oswald recently reported a study of Britons who won between $2,000 and $250,000 in a lottery. As a group, they showed a boost in happiness averaging a bit more than 1 point on a 36-point scale when surveyed two years later, compared to their levels two years before they won.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner and Princeton economist, and colleagues recently said that the notion that making a lot of money would produce good overall mood was "mostly illusory."

In one study, they said, people with household incomes of $90,000 or more were only slightly more likely to call themselves "very happy" overall than were people from households making $50,000 to $89,999. The rates were 43% versus 42%, respectively. But members of the high-income group were almost twice as likely to call themselves "very happy" as people from households with incomes below $20,000.

Other studies, rather than asking for a summary estimate of happiness, follow people through the day and record their feelings. These studies show less effect of income on happiness, Kahneman and colleagues said.

And although people who make $150,000 are considerably happier than those who make $40,000, it's not clear why, says psychologist Richard E. Lucas of Michigan State University.

Does money make you happier? Or does being happier allow you to earn more money later? Or does some other factor produce both money and happiness? There's evidence for all three interpretations, Lucas says.

In any case, researchers say any effect of money on happiness is smaller than most daydreamers assume.

"People exaggerate how much happiness is bought by an extra few thousand," Oswald said. "The quality of relationships has a far bigger effect than quite large rises in salary.... It's much better advice, if you're looking for happiness in life, to try to find the right husband or wife rather than trying to double your salary."

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