In an opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times (link here), psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia) and business administration professor Michael Norton (Harvard) tackle the question of how much money we need to be happy and suggest that once we’re at a certain income level, we’ll likely get more satisfaction out of giving than receiving.
The authors are quick to acknowledge that “there is a measurable connection between income and happiness” and that “people with a comfortable living standard are happier than people living in poverty.” But they go on to suggest that “additional income doesn’t buy us any additional happiness on a typical day once we reach that comfortable standard,” which in the U.S. “seems to fall somewhere around $75,000”:
Using Gallup data collected from almost half a million Americans, researchers at Princeton found that higher household incomes were associated with better moods on a daily basis — but the beneficial effects of money tapered off entirely after the $75,000 mark.
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Dunn & Norton summon this survey data to make a deeper point. Instead of falling for the all-too-common American practice of overindulging when our coffers fill up, why not underindulge and find better ways of using our money, like giving back to the community and to those in need? They even cite studies showing that we may get more pleasure by sharing than by keeping it all for ourselves.
They close their piece by suggesting:
But rather than focusing on how much we’ve got in our bowl, we should think more carefully about what we do with what we’ve got — which might mean indulging less, and may even mean giving others the opportunity to indulge instead.
I’m glad that Dunn & Norton are telling us to be generous, for our own sake and — more importantly — for the sake of others. At a time when the official unemployment rate is holding steady at just over 8 percent, and the “real” unemployment rate (including the seriously underemployed and discouraged job seekers who are no longer counted) is roughly double that, those reminders cannot come too often.
Uh, wait a minute
But before we get carried away, let’s break from the financial profile of the average Times reader and look at the bigger picture:
According to the most recent U.S. census data, individual yearly earnings from 2006-2010 (in 2010 dollars) averaged a little over $27,000. And household earnings averaged barely under $52,000.
In other words, most folks aren’t earning anywhere near $75,000. In fact, according to this handy calculator, that income level is at the 88th percentile of American earners, circa 2010. If we’re talking total household income (the measure of the study cited by Dunn & Norton), it would be at the 68th percentile. Even taking into account geographic cost of living differences, there simply aren’t a lot of people making 75Gs or more.
Where does this leave us?
If a $75,000 household income is indeed the magic number for feeling relatively comfortable, then something’s badly amiss when some 68 percent of the population may not enjoy that level of tranquility or satisfaction. We must address the larger economic, social, and political concerns that have brought us to this precarious place, such as the issues discussed in the recent AlterNet interview with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz that I excerpted earlier this week.
And finally, at an individual level, if you’re fortunate to have some discretionary income — however you choose to define it — think about how you can use some of it toward the greater good and to help those in need. You have a chance to make a difference in the lives of others.
[Note: This is a corrected version of the article originally posted and distributed to subscribers. I mistakenly published a version that did not properly reference the average individual and household income data.]