Money Can Buy You Happiness But Only Relative to Your Peer's Income

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2005-08-18 17:10

Happiness and Money

Financially richer people tend to be happier than poorer people, according to sociological researcher Glenn Firebaugh, Pennsylvania State University, and graduate student Laura Tach, Harvard University. Their research is focused on whether the income effect on happiness results largely from the things money can buy (absolute income effect) or from comparing one's income to the income of others (relative income effect). They present their research in a session paper, titled "Relative Income and Happiness: Are Americans on a Hedonic Treadmill?," at the American Sociological Association Centennial Annual Meeting on August 14.

Firebaugh argues that, in evaluating their own incomes, individuals compare themselves to their peers of the same age. Therefore a person's reported level of happiness depends on how his or her income compares to others in the same age group. Using comparison groups on the basis of age, the researchers find evidence of both relative and absolute effects, but relative income is more important than absolute income in determining the happiness of individuals in the United States. This may result in a self-indulgent treadmill, because incomes in the United States rise over most of the adult lifespan.

"If income effects are entirely relative, then continued income growth in rich countries today is irrelevant to how happy people are on the whole," says Firebaugh. "Rather than promoting overall happiness, continued income growth could promote an ongoing consumption race where individuals consume more and more just to maintain a constant level of happiness."

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Firebaugh tested what he refers to as the hedonic treadmill hypothesis, which uses a comparison of age-based cohorts. The hedonic treadmill requires a specific type of relative income effect: one where "keeping up with the Joneses" means continually increasing one's own income, because we can be sure that the Joneses are increasing theirs.

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