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The Pay Raise People Say They Need to Be Happy


November 20, 2023

From the WSJ.

We frequently overestimate just how much happiness money buys

People are often convinced their lives would improve if only they could climb a few rungs on the income ladder.

They are right, to an extent. Many studies have found a link between income and happiness, both in terms of day-to-day mood and longer-term life satisfaction. Having more money would help many people afford necessities, and on average, richer people report being happier.

Exactly how much more money do we think we need to be happy? A new survey from the financial-services company Empower put the question to about 2,000 people.

In the survey, most people said it would take a pretty significant pay bump to deliver contentment. The respondents, who had a median salary of $65,000 a year, said a median of $95,000 would make them happy and less stressed. The highest earners, with a median income of $250,000, gave a median response of $350,000.

Employers are planning on an average pay increase of 3.9% in 2024 for nonunion employees, according to a survey from the consulting firm Mercer. In the Empower survey, Americans said that to be happy, they would need almost a 50% raise.

Just how much happier a 3.9% or 50% raise would make any given person is hard to determine, researchers said.

One study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, found that people who randomly received $10,000 tended to get a happiness boost that lasted at least six months. (The $2 million given out in the study was provided by a wealthy couple, who the researchers estimated generated 225 times more happiness than if they had kept the money themselves.)

Another, from the Review of Economic Studies in 2020, looked at lottery winners in Sweden whose prizes were mostly between $100,000 and $500,000. They reported higher levels of satisfaction with their lives more than a decade after their windfall, compared with lottery players who won no prize or a small one.

The magnitude of a raise’s effect, though, might not be life-changing.

“The impact of money on happiness isn’t as large as people typically assume,” said Elizabeth Dunn, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of a book on money and happiness. “Happiness is determined by so many different factors that changing any one thing, it’s hard to have a huge impact.”

Happiness for sale

About seven in 10 respondents in the Empower survey said they strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement: “Having more money would solve most of my problems.” Similar proportions of people in each income bracket felt that way, including those with salaries of $200,000 or more.

Dunn said that many people might be happier if they focus on the best ways to use the money they have, rather than on getting more of it.

“That’s something that we know makes a difference and that people have control over in the immediate term,” she said.

Dunn said many people overemphasize money, relative to other variables, as a path to contentment. Her research indicates that those who give priority to time over moneytend to be happier in life.

A little bit more

And as soon as someone does reach a new pay tier, they often start focusing on the next one as their target recalibrates.

“They might imagine that once they get the higher salary, then that’ll be enough,” said Matt Killingsworth, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies the causes of happiness. “In reality, once they get there, they’ll probably want a little bit more.”

Even very wealthy people think like this. A 2018 study asked millionaires to rate their happiness on a scale from one to 10 and, if they didn’t say 10, predict how much money they would need to move one point higher. Slightly over half of those with a net worth of $10 million or more said their wealth would need to increase by at least 50%.

“It’s part of what makes humans amazing,” said Killingsworth of the impulse to continue advancing. “But it also means we rarely look at an aspect of our life and say, ‘That’s absolutely perfect.’”

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