The optimal income for happiness

What is the optimal income for happiness? How much happier are people with a large bank account than those who suffer through the last days of each month? Scientists have done a lot of effort to investigate the relation between money and happiness.

The conventional wisdom in happiness economics states that, indeed, happiness levels rise with income, to a certain point. After this point, the impact on happiness of an additional euro, pound are dollar is virtually zero: more money does not mean more happiness. But is it possible to exactly measure the cut-off point? That is, can we measure what the ideal income is, generating the best happiness bang for the buck?

Eugenio Proto of Warwick University and Aldo Rustichini of the University of Minnesota claim to have the answer. Their research attests that life satisfactions reaches its maximum level at an income level of $30,000, or about the level of Equatorial Guinea using World Bank data (though French people aren’t necessarily the happiest ones).

But Proto and Rustichini’s research reveals there is even more: after this point, people even become less happy. They  explain that this effect arises due to changes in what they label the ‘aspiration level’ of people with a below average income in rich countries.

Simply speaking, when incomes rise, the gap between the have-lots and have-less become bigger. When surrounded by wealthier people, people have higher aspirations for their own life, often irrationally> as the gap between reality and dreams increase, life satisfaction diminishes.

Their data set out the income level versus the likeliness of reporting the highest level of happiness. People in a country with an income per head of $5,600 are 12% less likely to report the maximum number than in a country with an income of $15,000. As incomes rise, the effect disappears. And after $30,000, the link even becomes negative.

What does this mean? Of course, you may consider moving to Equatorial Guinea if you live in a richer country but make less than the holy number of $30,000. Jokes aside, there is more  at stake here. Higher incomes aren’t necessarily a sign of progress. They might be caused by longer working hours, more overtime and less time for leisure, all factors that bring down happiness.

But maybe the real effect displayed by the study is the cost of inequality. Earlier studies have shown that it is not only the absolute figure of income that determines your happiness. It is also about your income relative to what you could make. If you make less than your friends, your colleagues, or than your did in a previous job, this might cause total misery. The moral of the story is simple: if countries care about our quality of life, they should seek to control income inequality. Equal countries, like Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all in the top-five of happiest nations. At least, their high government spending seem to be good for something. Money can’t buy you happiness, the adagium goes, but maybe their high taxes do?

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