Happiness has been one of humans’ greatest concerns since we evolved brains big enough to contemplate more than our mere survival. We spend much of our time pursuing what we think will make us happy: We surround ourselves with friends, find hobbies like stamp collecting, and seek out pleasures like good food.
We also spend a lot of time and energy trying to accumulate as much wealth as possible, and this pursuit has become one of the most controversial issues among researchers of happiness (or “subjective well-being,” as they call it). While it seems obvious that money can buy us many of the things that make life more enjoyable, most of us (myself included) shudder to think that a material object can have such a strong influence on our happiness.
So, how important is wealth to happiness?
In an effort to understand how economic hardships could affect well-being, Gallup Polls—one of the largest polling agencies in the country—collected one million responses assessing Americans’ happiness and how much they felt they were thriving, struggling, or suffering. They looked at the period from 2008 until 2010, with a particular focus on the effect of the 2009 economic recession.
Overall, the poll tells us a few things we already knew:
1. People are happier during the weekends (happiness fluctuated by 10 percent or more from weekdays to weekends!)
2. Americans have relatively, but not incredibly, high well-being on average.
We rank 15th out of 97 countries that have been measured for well-being, according to the World Values Index. With a mean of about 60-70 percent, we show room for improvement, but overall, most Americans seem pretty happy and satisfied with their lives.
During the recession, the polls show a slight dip in well-being (about 4 percent) in conjunction with a greater number of individuals who reported struggling as opposed to thriving. (Important note: Always read your graphs carefully. The results for this measure are on a scale ranging from 1-10; the authors categorized thriving as scores 7-10, and struggling as 5-6, which is a bit sneaky).
So how do we interpret these findings, and where do they fit into what we know about money and well-being? Research in this area provides mixed results. In a comprehensive review of the literature, the father-son team of Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener showed that while nations with greater wealth generally have higher well-being, wealth within a nation correlates very little with well-being. In fact, countries that show economic growth do not show corresponding increases in well-being.
Even more telling, people who focus on accumulating material wealth show lower levels of well-being. On the other hand, people who lose their job consistently show a drop in happiness, which certainly occurred as the recession took full force.
Gallup suggests that their results reflect significant changes in the well-being and happiness of the American people during the recession. However, it appears that although small drops in happiness were certainly associated with the economic recession, it was fairly robust even in the face of economic hardship. If anything, the poll suggests that although the economy was plummeting, individuals were able to find happiness in other areas, such as social support, which is one of the strongest predictors of well-being.
These results help remind us that money doesn’t buy happiness, and that even in the face of economic hardship, we can find joy amongst friends and family.