December 13th: money doesn’t buy happiness, but…
The research into “happiness” and “life satisfaction” continues, and it is great to see so many datasets out there that can help illuminate and illustrate what the science is telling us. It’s important to note that every survey has its contextual factors (e.g., whehter it was conducted face-to-face or via telephone, the order of the questions, what the weather was like outside, etc.) that can have an influence on people’s responses. Nevertheless, some of the key patterns are sufficiently stable to draw some conclusions.
One of those conclusions is that incomes do still matter for happiness and life satisfaction (over and above of the benefits money conveys in terms of health and access to other amenities), even if, at the top of the income distribution, the marginal gains become rather, well, marginal. But what I wanted to highlight today is that the link is by no means straightforward.
Today’s chart shows the percentage of people within each income decile (columns) that say they are “Very happy”, “Rather happy”, “Not very happy”, or “Not at all happy”. The sample is around 75,000 people in 50 countries in the World Values Survey Wave 7, conducted from 2017 to 2020. A number of things stand out.
First, even among the poorest income groups (1–3), a quarter to a third of the respondents say that they are “Very happy” (top left hand corner of chart). Second, yes, this proportion of veryhappy people is substantially higher — at more than 50% — among the highest income group (10, top right corner of chart). A very small proportion of the highest-income people within each country say that they are not happy. Indeed, the not very or not at all happy people are somewhat concentrated in the lower income deciles.
There are obviously some country differences. Based on this survey, for example, in the US, around 10% of all the people in the top income decile say they are “Not at all happy” — the highest of all the income groups in the US. The second highest proportion of “Not at all happy” people in the US is the 9th decile. Only 2% of people in the bottom income group (1) say they are “Not at all happy”.
However, even in the US, around a fifth of those in the lowest income group (1) say they are “Very happy”. So clearly incomes can’t explain nearly everything about people’s happiness.
[Note: I’ve intentionally used the “happiness” scores here, rather than life satisfaction, mainly because it is easier to show 4 than 10 categories. I may return to the difference between the two a little later.]