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New study explains why the rich seem happier

In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Matthew Killingsworth reports that, after tracking the lives of over 33,000 volunteers in the US for seven years, he is yet to see the happiness plateau
By Harikrishnan Nair
PUBLISHED ON FEB 26, 2021 11:18 PM IST

In a surprising finding in 2010, a study revealed that money could make you happier, but there was actually an “enough” point — a level after which happiness tended to plateau even with rising income. Now it turns out the “enough” point may be a myth.

In a new study published on January 26, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Matthew Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School reports that, after tracking the lives of over 33,000 volunteers in the US for seven years, he is yet to see the happiness plateau.

Technology helped Killingsworth capture real-time data on his volunteers (a total of over 1.7 million data points by the end of the study), allowing him a deeper look into their lives, he says. At least thrice a day, the volunteers were asked multiple-choice questions that called on them to rate: “How do you feel right now?” and “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life?” From time to time they were also asked about their sense of financial security, their sense of control over their lives, among other factors.

Based on the data gathered from his subjects daily, Killingsworth states in his report that “Larger incomes were robustly associated with both greater experienced well-being (real-time) and greater evaluative well-being (when a person reflects on their life)”.

Where the 2010 study, published in the same journal — by researchers Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, both Nobel laureates — suggested that a household income of $75,000 (about 54 lakh) a year was sort of a threshold of emotional well-being for people in the US, Killingsworth says in his findings that happiness continued to grow even as annual household incomes crossed $480,000 (about 3.4 crore).

The 2010 study was so influential that it has since featured in popular culture and influenced how some CEOs in America fix their minimum wage. Other researchers took up and built on its data with studies that appeared to validate the original results.

Killingsworth explained the difference in the results thus: “Only recently has it been possible to look into people’s lives in real time through the use of smartphones, while earlier it was through surveys that looked into how people felt in the last week or month. That was remembered feeling, which is subject to change and, hence, possible bias.”

Killingsworth does sound a warning about his findings too. “Some people might think I’m saying money is much more important than we previously thought. That’s not what I’m saying,” he said via email . “Instead, I find that income matters across a broader range of incomes than we thought, and that it doesn’t plateau at a modest income level. But the magnitude of the effect, I find, is comparable to past research, and only moderate in size. So, people should not conclude that money is extremely important for happiness or that they should focus on making a lot of money in order to be happy. My findings show both views are wrong.”

He also admits that there can be a downside to crossing the enough point, caused by the very drive to cross it. “If the pursuit of money comes at a cost to other sources of happiness, it could easily backfire,” he says. “So, earning more money by working very long hours or doing a job you hate is almost certainly going to make you less happy.”

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