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Scientifically proven: You can’t buy happiness

Jennifer Stellar, former Ph.D. student in social psychology | May 31, 2011

Well-being has been one of the most important concerns for humans since we evolved big enough brains to contemplate more than mere survival. Researchers measure well-being as feeling satisfied with your life and experiencing more positive than negative affect, but colloquially, most of us just refer to it as happiness. 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.

One of the most controversial debates in the well-being literature is about money. 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 well-being. 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 responsesassessing Americans happiness, well-being, and how much individuals 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.

Well Being Index

Overall, the poll tells us a few things we already knew:

  1. People are happier during the weekends (happiness fluctuated by 10% 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%, 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%) in conjunction with a greater number of individuals who reported struggling compared 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, Diener and 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 increases in well-being. Even more telling, individuals who focus on material wealth show lower levels of well-being. On the other hand, one life event consistently associated with decreases in happiness is losing your job, which certainly occurred as the recession took full force.

Gallup suggests that their results reflect significant changes in the well-being and the happiness of the American people during the recession. However, it appears that although small drops in well-being were certainly associated with the economic recession, well-being 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 like 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.


Diener, E. (2000). Subjective well-being: The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 34-43 DOI:10.1037//0003-066X.55.1.34.

Turner, R. (1981). Social Support as a Contingency in Psychological Well-BeingJournal of Health and Social Behavior, 22 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2136677.

Cross-posted from the Berkeley Science Review blog.