It’s an age old question; can you buy happiness, or is happiness, or more generally well-being, something which no amount of money can bring. In fact can we even say that money is bad for well-being? The debate infusing years of popular culture, art and literature – whilst Abba Sang that it was “Always sunny/ In the Rich man’s world” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1934) novel Tender is the Night highlighted the corrosive effect of money upon individuals well-being through it’s description of the fates which befall it’s super-rich characters.
More recently Oliver James, the Psychologist behind the 2007 hit-book Affluenza points out that
If money engendered well-being, millionaires would be the most contented folk on the planet as well as the richest. The only studies to have specifically investigated this question, both American, suggest this is not so. In the first, over one-third of a sample of super-rich people (those with a net wealth of £70 million or more) were less happy than the national average
As is the case with James’s super-rich well-being in general has until recently been a rather under-researched area, however the increased recognition that GDP alone is not a sufficient marker of progress has led to a number of statistical organisations to attempt to gauge individuals satisfaction with their lives, in the process making available a range of data for the first time which has been collected using robust methodologies and often, relatively large sample sizes. So can we now answer the question – does money bring happiness, or misery, and not just for the super-rich, but for us all?
Are richer countries happier?
The first place to look is at the national level. There are vast discrepancies between the wealth of nations, so do people in richer countries on average report higher levels of well-being? Using data from UN Human Development Reports it is possible to plot the relationship between a measure of wealth (in this case GNI per Capita) and reported levels of life satisfaction.
As we can see there appears to be a positive relationship between GNI and life satisfaction levels. Countries with a higher GNI tend to have a higher life-satisfaction rating; Canada for instance with a 2010 GNI of 34 729 has an overall level of life-satisfaction of 7.7, whereas Togo with a GNI of only 789 has a correspondingly lower level of overall life-satisfaction at 2.8. The graph shows however, that at a point very roughly around $35 000 GNI per capita the relatonship breaks-down and that higher levels of GNI are not associated with higher life-satisfaction scores.
In following this pattern life-satisfaction seems to conform with a range of other indicators such as life expectancy in which increases in a nations wealth results in improvements in outcomes, however this effect comes to an end when a certain point of development is reached, up until this point increased wealth, enables a greater range of basic needs to be met such as housing and healthcare, but once these are met then there is little role for money in increasing well-being, we must search for other factors.
The Better-Life Index
The OECD Better life index is one such attempt at bringing together data on income, life satisfaction, work-life balance, community and the environment. One way of exploring the relationship between money and happiness is to look at the relationship between the measures of life-satisfaction and household income:
As we can see ,when making a cross-country comparison of OECD countries it appears there is a moderate correlation between household income and life-satisfaction. R = 0.56 which puts the relationship at the moderate level – by comparison the correlation between life satisfaction and percentage of employees working long hours is -0.11 and the correlation with time spent on leisure, or personal care is 0.19. It also seems to matter little how wealth is distriuted within a country; using data from the UN Human Development Report it seems that income inequality has no correlation with the average levels of life satisfaction R = -0.06
The OECD data on average life satisfaction do however vary within many countries according to social status. The OECD Better Life Index website reports that in the UK for instance the bottom 20% of the British population have an average life satisfaction level of 6.8 whilst the top 20% have a score of 7.2 , and in Estonia the figures are 4.3 and 6.8 respectively.
Well-being and personal incomes
Some recent work carried out by the Office for National Statistics also found that those with the lowest personal incomes reported, on average, the lowest levels of life-satisfaction and lowest scores in response to questions about the extent to which the things they do in life are worthwhile and happiness yesterday as well as recording the highest levels of anxiety compared to other income groups. Generally speaking the scores improve as the income scale rises, with the biggest gains coming between the groups £4160 – £11439 and £11440 – £15 599 though interestingly (especially with regards to Oliver James’s theories in Affluenza) those in the highest income category £49 400 + scored worse in life satisfaction and worthwhile than the category below £39 000 – 49 399, whilst having the same happiness score and anxiety score. It is necessary to mention however, that the ONS point out the data is experimental and comes from a low sample size.
Statistics from the 2010 New Zealand General Social Survey also appear to show a pattern where persons with higher personal and household income also report higher levels of well-being. Using a 5 point Likert Scale to measure life-satisfaction the Statistics New Zealand website reports that
Satisfaction with life increased with household income level. However, the largest increase in life satisfaction occurred between the two lowest household income groups (‘$30,000 or less’ and ‘$30,001– $70,000’), with progressively smaller increases in life satisfaction at higher income groups.
This is interesting, as like the ONS data it also suggests that the biggest step in terms of life-satisfaction takes place toward the bottom end of the income scale and that at the upper end of the income scale life-satisfaction appears to be closer to, or even lower than income groups below. There is of course a good reason for this. As everyone knows professional football players are some of the best-paid individuals in the UK. As a player at the height of his powers Matt Le Tissier could command an astronomical salary, however chose to stay with one club, Southampton, despite the fact that other clubs could, and would pay much more. In his autobiography Le Tissier reasons:
You can’t blame players for taking that sort of money if it’s offered, but there comes a time when you have to wonder how much money someone can actually spend? If you are already on £30 000 a week, what else could you buy if you get £40 000?
For Le Tissier it was more important to stay at a club where he was happy rather than take the extra money, it was very much a case of putting well-being above money, not that as Le Tissier concedes he was badly paid, but the point he makes applies equally to less spectacular amounts, how much can one person spend? Certainly moving from a low to a moderate income can bring about major changes; you can afford maybe a better car, a holiday, trips to restaurants and the cinema, most importantly you are relived the stress associated with struggling to pay bills and essentials. Moving from a high to a very high income, on the other hand doesn’t entail that much change wheras you may need to make more sacrifices, or trade-offs to earn more; longer hours, moving away from family and friends, a commute, or
The Easterlin Paradox
A particularly interesting observation from the OECD report ‘How’s Life?: Measuring Well-being’ suggests that this relationship between income and well-being is a little more complex; The Easterlin Paradox, first observed by Richard Easterlin in 1974, suggests, according to report, that:
a higher rise in personal income leads to higher subjective well-being for that person, but that a rise in average incomes for a country does not give rise to a corresponding increase in the country’s average subjective well-being
In other words it is not necessarily increases in income per se which increase well-being, rather it is the increase in income relative to the rest of the population. So in terms of the step we have previously mentioned, an increase in life-satisfaction from moving from a household income of under $30 000 NZD to say $45 000 NZD is much likely to be the case when applied to an individual household, rather than all households in that group.
One final observation of interest. When comparing areas within the UK there appears to be no relationship between an areas level of wealth and well-being. Most famously, London, the economic powerhouse of the UK, seems to do particularly badly when it comes to indicators of well-being. This is discussed more fully in a previous post, but one possible line of explanation is that the particular economic and social conditions arising from the global city form may be detrimental for well-being.
From this short review can we say that money buys happiness? It certainly appears to be the case on both a national level and an individual level that higher incomes are correlated with higher levels of reported well-being. Certainly it seems that being towards the bottom end of the income range is particularly bad for well-being. This appears to have much to do with the income required to provide for basic human needs such as food, warmth, shelter, education and healthcare, or the income required to participate fully in society. Once these have been attained then the effect of income in terms of increasing well-being seems to be less potent, and there is even some limited evidence to suggest that having a very high income is actually detrimental to well-being.
Policy implications : To redistribute, or not?
The Easterlin paradox is also rather interesting in that it points to a more complex relationship between well-being and income. Raising the overall average level of well-being is not therefore simply a matter of increasing income among the bottom groups, primarily by redistribution, however, according to the paradox this would be rather limited in effect and even any small gains would be counteracted by the losses to well-being incurred by other groups.
This does not mean to say that re-distribution is necessarily wrong, as statistics New Zealand suggest:
In addition to lower life satisfaction, people in lower income households were more likely to report feeling unsafe walking alone in their neighbourhood at night and to say they had ‘fair or poor’ health than people in higher income households.
It has long been held that low income has been associated with various types of disadvantage; housing, health and education to name a few. It could well be that it is not low income itself which results in low well-being, but these other factors associated with low income. This would explain, in part, why overall rises in average incomes have little impact, compared to individual rises. A rise in the average, whilst improving some material conditions e.g more televisions, has little effect on things such as housing, whereas a rise in an individuals household income may mean the opportunity to move to a better neighbourhood with a better school, or better access to health-care facilities. In other words in developed industrial societies everyone may have a fridge, T.V and mobile phone, but poverty and disadvantage remain entrenched and their effects real.
As mentioned, there is also some, albeit limited, evidence that having a very high income has a detrimental affect on well-being. The obvious solution in this case would be to give away large parts of wealth. Could this explain the impulse to philanthropy among members of the super-rich past and present? Is this charitable giving an attempt to mitigate the negative impact of high-income on well-being , or at the very least an acknowledgement that both globally and individually a more even distribution of wealth is desirable
It’s 9.30am, just a little over a week ago, and I’ve just managed to squeeze myself onto a packed tube train at London Bridge station – this being the third train to arrive since I took my place on the platform. Grasping a rail to steady myself as the train jerks along I find myself in the kind of close proximity to total strangers which is normally reserved for family, close friends, or else lovers. A man nearby sneezes leading to the people crushed up against him to wince. Thankfully for me this journey is a one-off, but for the majority of passengers in their smart business attire this must be part of their daily routine, squished together like a glutenous mass of red-blood cells fueling the body of some greater being. At this moment I start wondering to myself ‘just why are Londoners’ so anxious?’
I know Londoners are particularly anxious, because when asked by the Office for National statistics ‘Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?’ where nought is ‘not at all’ and ten is ‘completely’ 44.5% of Londoners provided a ‘high, or very high’ rating of between 4 and 10 compared to 41.8% in the next highest region, the North East, and 35.5% in the lowest, Northern Ireland. The question was asked as part of the attempt to measure national well-being and featured alongside other questions in which respondents were asked to rate their overall life satisfaction, the extent to which they felt the things they did in their life were worthwhile and their happiness the previous day – all of which Londoners tended to provide a greater amount of poor ratings compared to the rest of the UK.
So why the anxiety? What makes London so different from the rest of the UK? It can’t be just the impact of being crammed on the tube – though that may well explain some of the anxiety. London is particularly prosperous relative to the rest of the UK, but can that really explain why people in London are more anxious? One explanation could be in the way that prosperity is divided; London is by far the most unequal place in the UK with the ratio between the hourly earnings of the 99th and 1st percentile, based on 2011 figures, being 16.2. By contrast the most equal, Wales, has a ratio less than half London’s at 7.0.
In their book, The Spirit Level; Why Equality is Better for Everyone Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that though inequality is not the cause of what have been rising levels of anxiety..
Greater Inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status
They continue that the more the inequality, the more status competition and the higher the levels status anxiety, but were this to be the case we would expect to see a relationship between inequality and the levels of anxiety and a regional level, at least, this appears not to be the case as this scatterplot shows:
Of course even a fairly strongly correlated result would be far from conclusive owing to the small sample size, but going back to the data The South East which has the second highest inequality ratio of 9.6 had a fairly middling proportion of people recording high, or very high responses to the anxiety question, 38.8% – lower for instance that the much more equal North East (7.6 & 41.8%).
Perhaps however, it is something else about London. In her seminal work Saskia Sassen (2001), who famously analysed increased income inequality and polarisation in what she termed ‘global cities’, observed about London:
As in New York, a distinct lifestyle has emerged, and there is a sufficiently critical mass of young, high-income workers engaged in high levels of consumption that it makes itself felt in certain parts of London and the region. New, elegant shops and restaurants – and sharp increases in the prices of housing – manifest the new lifestyle. There has also been high-income gentrification of some parts of London, including areas of inner London once inhabited by lower-income people, especially minorities. (p.272-3)
What Sassen is pointing to is that high levels of inequality have helped to shape the city, both physically and culturally, creating an urban form which may well be more conducive to the sort of status anxiety mentioned by Wilkinson and Pickett which may in turn explain its inhabitants higher than average levels of anxiety. Finally the tube disgorges me at Old Street and thankful and relieved I emerge into the grey morning and gulp down the (relatively) fresh air on the surface. Maybe it is the tube after all, or else as they say on the underground, mind the gap.
Office for National Statistics (2012) First ONS Annual Experimental Subjective Well-being Results 24th July 2012
Sassen, S. (2001) The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, (2nd edition) Oxford; Princeton University Press
Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2010) The Spirit Level; Why Equality is Better for Everyone London:Penguin