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Rich People Are Less Sad–But They Aren’t Any Happier Than The Rest Of Us

Life is a little less miserable when you can throw money at your problems.

Rich People Are Less Sad–But They Aren’t Any Happier Than The Rest Of Us
[Top photo: Frank P Wartenberg/Getty Images]

There is a lot of research to suggest that richer people are more satisfied with their lives than poorer people, at least up to a certain point when their most important needs are met. But life satisfaction is different from happiness, which is less how we feel generally about how lives and more how we feel emotionally at any moment. And, interestingly, income may not have as much bearing on that at all. Money, it seems, can’t buy everything.

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In fact, new research shows that richer and poorer people are generally as happy as each other. Where they differ is in their level of sadness: higher-income individuals are markedly less sad on a daily basis.

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“Using the most sophisticated measures of emotional well-being in a large-scale survey of the American population, we found that wealthier individuals reported less sadness but no more happiness during their daily activities,” says the study, which is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The results are based on a survey of a cross-section of Americans–12,291 people in all. Participants rated their happiness or sadness for three random activities that day (0 = not at all; 6 = very). The sample was carved into 16 income groups to compare the importance of wealth.

The relationship between income and sadness is as strong as the relationship of income to life satisfaction, the study says. To put that into context, lead author Kostadin Kushlev, a PhD Candidate at the University of British Columbia, compares it to the effect of someone taking an aspirin to prevent a second heart attack. In 20,000 individuals, it would prevent 50 to 100 deaths.

But why would someone richer feel less sadness? The study puts it down to a greater ability to deal with setbacks. A richer person coming home to a leak in their roof, say, might treat the problem as an annoyance–something they need to call someone about. A poorer person who can’t fix it immediately would know they’d have to deal with dripping for months. “The greater difficulty in dealing with such misfortunes may make poor people feel a lack of control over the vicissitudes of life, with greater consequences for sadness than for happiness,” the study says.

It could be that rich people also aren’t good at being happy. Other research shows wealthy folk don’t necessarily savor life’s pleasures–one key to happiness. “Income affords a lot of benefits that increase happiness, so finding that there is no effect means that income might also act to decrease the happiness people derive from daily activities,” Kushlev says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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