Jonathan Clements' "Getting Going" column in the August 16 Wall Street Journal reviewed findings from recent economic and sociological studies to make the case that money only buys so much happiness. From the column's sidebar:
Folks earning $90,000 or more report being much happier than those earning less than $20,000--but not much happier than those earning between $50,000 and $89,999.
And even that marginal bump-up in happiness above $90K may be illusory. From Clements' column:
[R]esearchers have speculated that our happiness is influenced not by our absolute level of wealth and income, but rather by how our financial situation compares with friends and colleagues.
This may help explain why so many high-income earners describe themselves as "very happy." Much of the time, these folks aren't necessarily all that cheerful. But when asked in surveys to assess their satisfaction with their lives, they think about their standing in the world--and that prompts them to say they are happy.
This strikes me as, uh, right on the money. My wife and I went to law school and business school, respectively, and as a result became members of a high-earning, upwardly mobile and deeply stressed-out cohort. Over the last few years, we both turned away from lucrative professional opportunities to do work that was more rewarding and less stressful, and we're a lot more satisfied with our lives as a result.
Sure, if our income dropped below a certain level, our happiness would drop as well, but downward mobility has its rewards. Today we have a lot more time for each other, we're getting more exercise, we cook and eat dinner together almost every night, and perhaps most tellingly, we sleep soundly, free from work-induced anxiety dreams. The process hasn't been pain-free, but if we had to do it all over again, I have no doubt that we'd make the same choices.
Reading Clements' column, I couldn't help but imagine that some of the high-earners taking that survey considered their bank balance and their material standard of living and thought, "Well, I'm supposed to be happy, so I guess I'll say I'm happy."