Why money doesn't bring happiness

Sept. 14, 2006
The more money you earn, the more time you are likely to spend working, commuting, and doing other compulsory activities that bring little pleasure, according to an article in the June 30 issue of Science magazine.

The more money you earn, the more time you are likely to spend working, commuting, and doing other compulsory activities that bring little pleasure, according to an article in the June 30 issue of Science magazine.

Researchers looked at the link between money and happiness, presenting new evidence showing that what they call "the focusing illusion" affects how people respond when asked how happy or how satisfied they are with their lives. "When people consider the impact of any single factor on their well-being — not only income — they are prone to exaggerate its importance," they wrote.

To test the power of the focusing illusion, the authors asked a sample of working women to estimate the percentage of time they were in a bad mood the day before. Respondents were also asked to predict the percentage of time people with various life circumstances, including no health insurance and close work supervision, along with high and low income, typically spend in a bad mood. These predictions were compared to the actual reports of mood provided by respondents with the relevant circumstances.

Respondents overestimated the prevalence of bad mood in general, and grossly exaggerated its prevalence among people with undesirable circumstances. For example, while those with household incomes of less than $20,000 a year reported they spent 32% of the previous day in a bad mood, other respondents predicted people at that income level would spend 58% of their day in a bad mood.

The researchers reviewed several possible reasons why income has a weak effect on happiness, including their own explanation — as income rises, people's time use does not appear to shift toward activities associated with improved affect.

Citing evidence from another recent survey, they note that people with greater income tend to devote relatively more time to work, compulsory nonwork activities such as shopping and childcare, and active leisure such as exercise, and less time to passive leisure such as watching TV and just relaxing.

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