Money can’t buy happiness, but it does buy protection from certain forms of unhappiness

I used to have what calls “the worst job in America.”

But it wasn’t the worst job I’ve ever had. The truth is, actually, that it was a pretty great job — it’s just a great job in a terrible industry. The newspaper business is run by short-sighted idiots who seem determined to crash and burn. They’re making life increasingly miserable for the shrinking number of people who still work at newspapers, but in those few moments when reporters and editors are able to just do the job itself without interference from the idiots in charge, that job is still challenging, rewarding, meaningful and even fun. Not “the worst job in America” by a long shot.

“The Worship of Mammon,” by Evelyn De Morgan.

CareerCast had the misfortune of releasing it’s list of “the worst jobs” on April 23 — the day before the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 950 garment workers. CareerCast did qualify that their list was only about jobs in America. But there are plenty of miserable sweatshops with unsafe working conditions here in America, too.

Let’s be generous and assume that CareerCast is only considering the worst licit and legal jobs in America. The list still looks woefully short-sighted and parochial.

About 18 million American workers earn less than $9 an hour. Every job in CareerCast’s list pays at least twice that. Yes, many of the jobs on the list are dangerous, grueling or unpleasant, but offer someone making $14,500 a year as a full-time minimum-wage worker a chance to double their income by becoming a roofer, lumberjack or oil rig worker and most of them would jump at the chance.

Even setting aside income, most of those minimum-wage jobs are less desirable than the jobs on this “worst jobs” list simply as work. It’s menial, laborious, repetitive, frustrating, uninspiring drudgery and many of the millions stuck in those minimum-wage jobs would gladly switch places with a flight attendant, meter reader, mail carrier or newspaper reporter even if it didn’t involve a huge pay raise.

CareerCast’s “worst jobs” list is the sort of thing that could only be written by people who have enough money and who aren’t able to imagine what it would be like not to.

And so is this article: “Yes, money can buy you happiness.”

The news hook for that story is a study that doesn’t actually say what the story tries to make it say. The study has to do with sufficiency. The story twists that into a statement about necessity. Those are not the same thing.

Here’s what we humans already knew and have known since before we started writing things down: Money is not sufficient for happiness. Money is necessary to avoid certain forms of unhappiness.

It’s really not that complicated. It only appears complicated to those who: A) have enough money; and B) don’t have enough happiness.

The word they don’t understand there is “enough.” This is not entirely their fault, because much of our culture is based on preventing any of us from understanding that word. But it’s a really important word — particularly when the subject is happiness.

The elusiveness of “enough” is, in fact, the main finding of the study reported in the story linked above: “Subjective Well‐Being and Income: Is There Any Evidence of Satiation?” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers of the Brookings Institution.

Stevenson and Wolfers found that more money corresponds with greater well-being. Matt Yglesias notes that their study shows this correspondence “on a logarithmic scale“:

That’s to say that a $5,000 increase in per capita GDP will generate a lot more happiness for a poor country than a rich one. And by the same token, a $5,000 increase in income will generate a lot more happiness for a poor family than for an affluent one. This is a key grounds for believing both in the importance of economic growth and in the importance of concern about the distribution of that growth. To be a little crude about it, halving the income of a millionaire will let you double the income of many poor households.

But the other thing about this logarithmic scale is that it indicates no evidence of what Stevenson and Wolfers call “satiation” — no point at which anyone anywhere seems able to say, “Ah, at last, enough. Now I am content.” Seeking satiation — sufficient happiness — from money alone offers asymptotically diminishing returns.

All of which, again, confirms what we humans have known for a very long time.

No, money cannot buy happiness. But it is necessary for buying necessities without which happiness is nearly impossible.

Having enough money is no guarantee of happiness. Not having enough money is a guarantee of unhappiness.


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  • As a friend of mine once used as a messenger-status:
    Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you ice cream, and I’m not ready to live in a world where there is a difference.

  • Yeah, that’s true.

    My thing is, I know plenty of people who are depressed despite the fact that they are logistically capable of doing things that would make them happier. That is, they have the money, the resources, etc.; what they seem to lack is something else altogether.

  • guest

    The impression I get is that it’s a video game/numbers on a screen phenomenon. There’s no possible way for the 1% to spend the money they accumulate, let alone get any satisfaction from spending it, but they like going for the top score.

  • guest

    I remember people using Princess Diana as an example of someone who’s thin, rich, beautiful, and royal–and utterly miserable. So it can happen.

  • guest

    Interesting point–I’ll remember that.

  • flat

    I think people become unhappy not because they have money but they mistake what they can buy for it and the things they can’t buy but have to work for.

  • For what it’s worth, I feel I have enough money. It even worries me that I might have a little too much.

    I suppose it helps that my mental issues are taking up so much of my time and energy that I just don’t have the option of cultivating any costly habits (even something like having a car would feel energy-consuming to me – when I think of owning one, all I can imagine is the constant hassle of washing it and getting gas for it and worrying about it breaking down and feeling guilty about the environment and… well, you get the idea…). So I have reached an odd sort of point of saturation – one where less money would make me less happy, but where more money (or at least, the spending of more money) would also make me less happy.

  • Donalbain

    Massive amounts of tax evasion? Helping the Chinese Government in its censorship? Naaah.. they are pretty good at being evil.

  • Kirala

    I remember hiking a mile and a half to the grocery store, uphill both ways, during my college years. (Seriously. There was a valley between my dorm and the grocery store in just the right place to make you forget there had been any downhill by the time you arrived at your destination.)

    I remember that as the Time of No Ice Cream, Ever. At least I lived close enough that I didn’t have to worry about the milk spoiling during the trip!

  • christopher_y

    “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and I’m here to tell you rich is better.” (Mae West)

    Me too. I’m rich now – our household income is solidly in the second decile and was in the first until I retired. (Nevertheless, we’re regarded as middle class – what’s that all about?) Having a financial cushion is great, especially when you can remember not having one. Opening the exorbitant winter gas bill and being able to curse the energy company for a bunch of thieving profiteers and then just pay the thing, makes me very happy compared to the alternative. But would any more money buy us any more happiness? I don’t see how. I don’t see what we could do with it, except give it away or spend it on vanity projects.

    The graph of money/happiness goes up very steeply for a bit, but if you don’t find it leveling off sharply after that I think you have to ask yourself some searching questions about what makes you happy.

  • John Cheese has written three excellent articles on the nature of poverty over at One of them is about why it’s so difficult to lift oneself from poverty and why Republican bootstrap analogies are useless pap designed to make the rich feel better about not helping the poor, rather than the “advice” it’s typically presented as.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Moe Szyslak: “Oh, you’re better off. Rich people aren’t happy. From the day they’re born to the day they die, they think they’re happy, but trust me. They ain’t.”

  • phantomreader42

    The US does not have a health care system. The US has a system for transferring money from sick people to health insurance company executives. Health care is not the purpose of this system, it is an occasional by-product, seen as undesirable waste by those who profit from the system. If health care were actually the intended product, the system would not give such large rewards for denying care.

  • My mistake. :p

    Don’t forget, those same insurance companies also offer malpractice insurance for doctors. This is an important note because US citizens are about–*Dartboards a map*–five times more likely to use for malpractice than Canadians, although Canadians on average sue for more money (between two to four times as much).

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    That’s going right in my quote collection.

  • Foelhe

    Here’s where I admit I’m way too optimistic and also probably bad at history.

    There’s always going to be people at the very top of the ladder that are irredeemably selfish. It wouldn’t surprise me if every CEO of every Fortune 500 company wouldn’t save a homeless person’s life if it cost them a nickel. But there’s been some wealth dissemination over the years (not enough, but some) and there are a decent number of people making 100K in the US. I really think if we convinced those people to buy what they want – not what other people tell them to want – and then pointed at the pile of money left over and said, hey, you could do some good with this, things would improve. Maybe not a lot, but some.

  • CharityB

    Oh, I get that. I’m not trying to say that it’s going to cure depression or make you happy no matter what. It’s just that money can buy you some breathing room. You can take vacations, see counselors, experiment with new lifestyles — it doesn’t mean that you will have the emotional wherewithal (or “the spoons”) to do all of those things, but it does mean that if you have a nervous breakdown and miss four days of work you won’t end up homeless.

    It’s like having airbags in your car. Getting into a car accident still sucks, but a few cracked ribs beats going headfirst through the windshield.

  • Guest

    “everybody else’s depression seem like a first world problem”

    Everybody else’s depression is probably constantly reminding them of that, too. “Other people have it so much worse than you do, you have no RIGHT to be this depressed. You have every advantage and every opportunity to do something, but you just sit here feeling shitty for no reason. What a waste of skin and space you are, you should just die.” Etc.

    It’s much worse to be depressed in dire straits because depression robs you of the agency that might help you improve the situation. But all depression sucks.

  • I guess it’s mostly a matter of emphasis.

    I would say that having money makes dealing with problems easier; and that depression sucks. Depression with no money sucks and it’s harder to deal with; depression with money sucks and it’s easier to deal with.

  • reynard61

    Then just go ahead and add a porch to *your* house. (Although I don’t really see how that’s going to get God to buy you a Mercedes Benz…)

  • reynard61

    Another good one: “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can get you a better brand of misery.” – Nelson Shuey

  • Cat

    I just started working at one of those repetitive, menial, one-dollar-above-minimum-wage-so-I’m-luckier-there-than-most jobs. It’s eight hours a night of working as fast as a human body can be expected to go, with no regard for pain, and every sip of water planned about fifteen minutes in advance. With the time it takes to plod from my station to the break room, I get, functionally, about nine minutes of break a day. For the first two weeks, my feet were in a sort of constant, sublime agony that often kept me awake during the day, but that seems to have subsided as of Friday.

    But even then, there are better and worse jobs, and one of the best non-academic jobs I’ve ever had was in a recycling plant. (Afternoon shift, good people, you could grab cardboard and mats off the line to put under your feet, and people would try to recycle the most extraordinary things.) IF there’s due regard for employee comfort, and IF you are making enough to make ends meet, and IF you personally know that either there’s potential for advancement, or you get to quit in a few months to go back to school, then there is a kind of Zen in it, and ye gods, it is nice to get paid for something you’re not expected to take home with you.

    I’ve seen the manufacturing industry degenerate a lot, though, the same way universities and newspapers and everything else has, with the minimum number of people handling the maximum number of tasks, and everything gradually getting shabbier and shabbier, and all of this nonsense framed by the powers that be as healthy competition, with the rewards going to the fittest and keenest and most diligent. But it’s so illuminating to go from one industry to the other, to see that the stuff we get told is unique to us isn’t. Academia tells us–and the lie had been wearing thin anyway–that we work so hard because we are bettering ourselves, and competition ensures that the finest candidates are selected for positions. Manufacturing tells us that we work so hard because it’s hard work, and if we wanted something better, we really should have gone out and gotten an education.

    To be clear, I have no trouble with hard work. I enjoy a challenge. But beating a challenge should come with more reward than the ability to cling to one’s job by the teeth and toenails for another night, or another semester, or what have you. Such ferocious competition to maintain the status quo is…the very OPPOSITE of excellence. And redirects our energies in ways that I’m beginning to see are very insidious.

  • Manu Forster

    we wouldn’t have money (as a means of communication) in the first
    place… then we would have a lot less unhappiness to compensate with
    money… money creates the diseases it promises to cure.
    Of course it is (sadly) the only cure for the disease, so far.

    And of course we have to think about alternatives to the market system.

    The internet / the so called *social web* is making alternative models of social integration and interaction beyond market and state plausible.

    Think about a form of society that refrains even from questioning our claims for need and wish fulfilment. A society where we are even asked to do what we want — in terms of what we believe to be the best thing to do according to our reason and our own conscience.

    Where everybody gets what they need and want… instead of a society where everyone is eager to control that everyone ONLY gets what they (for better or worse) DESERVE.

    Think about how much more social potential we would be able to access without people wasting their time, their ideas and their best efforts on jobs that are simply only dealing with problems of making and counting money… or fighting over property claims and violations…

    The market system is a mess and a tragedy.
    … a downward spiral…

    We will have to wake up from this nightmare of a society one day…
    We better hurry, before we die half asleep… without any glimpse or notion of what LIFE could be without the climate of social dissociation and corruption that our economical system is forcing upon our society.

    It’s ABOUT TIME // to move on!