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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  • Money definitely insulates you from things that would otherwise make life tougher. Being able to afford to drive a car, for example – when traffic isn’t a bugbear many things become so much *easier* – food shopping, running errands – in a way that becomes easy to forget about. Or being able to afford, say, home insurance for your personal effects in the event there is ever a disaster or theft.

    Or many other little things… all of which the wealthy already have, yet they want even more money than ever, and society is still willing to be complicit in letting them take it from those who have little.

  • Candidate for worst job in the world: the people whose job it is to go through insurance claims and find a reason to refuse them, or to get back the money. If they have even a speck of empathy, this is going to suck.

    Staring down the loaded double-barrel of student loans and homelessness and medical bills, I can definitely say that a few thousand dollars would make me a lot happier…

  • Bethany

    I talk about this a little in lectures and while there’s a lot of research out there (and I’m not an expert on it, though I’ve read some of it) there seems to be multiple ways to operationalize “happiness” that are not all the same.

    One is the idea of overall life satisfaction: “All things considered, how happy are you with your life?” If you’re asked to look at the big picture, how would you rate your happiness?

    The other is the idea of experienced happiness: If you could sum up all the moods and emotions you experience moment-to-moment in your life, what would the result be?

    One example I use to try to clarify this distinction: One of the factors that has the biggest influence on moment-to-moment affect at work is whether there are annoying noises at your workplace. However, annoying noises had little affect on ratings of job satisfaction. Construction noises on the other side of the wall are very annoying, but generally if asked, “So, overall how satisfied are you with your job” I wouldn’t say, “It’s horrible, they’re doing construction on the other side of the wall and the noise is annoying.”

    There’s some research that suggests that the former doesn’t stop increasing as your income increases, but that the latter does level off at some point (in one study done in the US it was around $75k). So the more money you have, the more satisfied you say you are with your life, but after a certain point more money doesn’t affect the balance between your day-to-day joys and your day-to-day miseries. The study mentioned here seems to be evaluating overall satisfaction, so it’s consistent with this idea.

  • Kirala

    Regarding the insurance claims, I’d have to have that job before I could say whether it would make me unhappy. Because as a teacher, there are students whom I hate to fail, because it breaks my heart. And there are students who continually text through class, try to take self-portraits or apply make-up rather than listen to the lectures, discuss what illegal car racing they will be doing that night rather than look at the assignment, plead inability to do homework because they have to talk with their friends until 3 AM and/or need to THOROUGHLY celebrate 4/20 instead, take half-hour “bathroom breaks”… those students are an absolute pleasure to fail.

    I suspect a similar sort insurance claimants exist, but I would have to work in the field to have any idea what the ratio is. After all, my job is not ultimately to fail students – and the Platonic ideal of an insurance adjuster’s job is not simply to save the company money. I suspect much depends on the structure of the company. Bob Parr in
    The Incredibles is at an insurance company where that’s probably the
    worst job ever, but I don’t know how much that reflects reality. I do know that any work environment devoid of compassion can become the worst job ever.

  • Don Draper has an excellent monologue in the Mad Men Season 5 episode “Commissions and Fees” that touches on the elusiveness of contentment:

    “Because even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten… You’re on top and you don’t have enough. You’re happy because you’re successful, for now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

    Don is presenting this as a positive argument that regards that constant hunger as a virtue, because he’s aggressively courting Dow Chemical to leave their current ad agency and come over to SCDP, despite Dow’s satisfaction with their current agency’s work. Naturally, this being Mad Men, Don’s words acts as a commentary on the culture of consumption that Madison Avenue encourages, on the lives of the series’ characters, and on the human condition in general. He’s arguing that the longing for contentment, not contentment itself, is the natural and desirable resting condition for humankind. That the intensity of Need never turns into the more relaxed state of Want; that it just turns into a different kind of Need. As Fred points out, it’s easy to make this statement from a position of privilege, where real Need (for food, clothes, health, shelter, financial security) is just a bogeyman that threatens the Have Nots. (Although, notably, Don was in a state of genuine Need early in his life, and if anything this has made him hungrier now that he is on top.) There’s something to the notion that “Money Can’t Buy Happiness” is a statement of privilege. But there’s wisdom in “Happiness Is a Moment Before You Need More Happiness”. Craving is a constant of the human condition.

  • Lindo Peeno made herself famous in 1996 by relating a story of an occasion when she was told by her boss to deny someone a life-saving surgery and how “saving the company money” was emphasized as more important than the person’s life — which then fed into her guilt and outrage when she discovered the company had wasted four times as much money in buying a piece of statue art for a hallway in the building.

    I wish to begin by making a public confession: In the spring of 1987, as a physician, I caused the death of a man.

    Although this was known to many people, I have not been taken before any court of law or called to account for this in any professional or public forum. In fact, just the opposite occurred: I was “rewarded” for this. It bought me an improved reputation in my job, and contributed to my advancement afterwards. Not only did I demonstrate I could indeed do what was expected of me, I exemplified the “good” company doctor: I saved a half million dollars.

  • 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.

    That’s basically what I find. I make enough money that I know the mortgage, car payment, and utilities are covered and food is on the table. I don’t have to budget too strenuously and there’s enough there that I can maintain hobbies and drop $20 or $30 on frivolities without having to think about it. I know what my means are and I live within them.

    I wouldn’t call that “happiness,” though. And I doubt that I’d be more happy if, say, I doubled the amount of money I am in the black every month. At some point more money just means that you can afford a $600 car payment instead of a $300 car payment and, really, so what?

    That said, I use my money in exchange for things or events that bring my happiness. That money, then, isn’t inherently making me happy, but through its judicious deployment I can increase my happiness. This is an important distinction that I don’t think a lot of people really put into the money/happiness continuum. Money helps, but after a certain amount it cannot be a substitution for self-awareness.

    That, too, is a key factor. If I’m driving a Honda and my neighbor is driving a Mercedes and my neighbor appears to be happier than me and I’m not aware of the factors driving my neighbor’s happiness and what is causing my dissatisfaction (unless, of course, my dissatisfaction is literally, “My neighbor has a more expensive car,” but that’s probably just an expression of an underlying idea) then I might conclude that Mercedes = happiness which means that I need more money to be happy. Since people tend to congregate in places that have the same relative levels of income and generally don’t interact outside of those areas in a meaningful way that creates the notion that everyone seems to have that they’re average.

    Intellectually I’m aware of the fact that my personal income is higher than the average household income in America, which means that I’m relatively wealthier than some 95% of the planet or something. I live in an affluent suburb of Chicago, though, and most of my neighbors are probably about where I am, financially speaking, and I don’t have to go very far at all to see houses cost more than I expect to see in my lifetime. As such, it would be really easy for me to get caught up in the rat race and start thinking of myself as an unfortunate broke person if I weren’t keeping track of my own needs and desires and aware of what I actually want out of life.

  • Kirala

    I get the necessary/sufficient thing – what I don’t get is why more money than sufficient = more happiness. I’ve taken a small dive from upper middle class (parents) to lower middle class (high school teaching = Not Wealthy), and I’m just as happy as before. I could probably drop a bit more without being much less happy. (Someday, I will actually budget properly, and discipline myself to give the money beyond what I need for physical, mental, and social health to charity. Someday.)

    I don’t understand why the upper classes feel such a need to cling to their funds rather than help the lower classes to get to the point where they can afford a sick day, a vacation, a night out with the family, a night out WITHOUT the kids, enough time to sleep, something in the bank… If money is so unimportant, 1%er, why do you need to cling to it? If money is so important, 1%er, then why are you not willing to share it with another priceless human being?

  • Kirala

    Ugh. That is the worst situation I can imagine. What kind of monsters start worrying about that?

  • MaryKaye

    I recommend Orwell’s _Down and Out in Paris and London_ for some nice stuff on money and happiness at the low end. He says, if you’re only eating a couple of pieces of white bread per day you lose interest in everything, you have no energy or initiative, nothing really matters to you–essentially you’re depressed. People who don’t go hungry can lose sight of this, but at the bottom level money (or goods) are ESSENTIAL prerequisites to being happy.

  • Jamoche

    “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz. My friends all have Porches, I must make amends.”

  • That’s what we get when our medical system has several layers of for-profit middlemen between “dying person” and “life-saving doctor”… HMOs exist to take in money and give back less by denying medical care. That’s their purpose. That was explicitly their purpose when the concept was introduced to Nixon.

    Which is why I die a little inside whenever someone says the US has the best health care system in the world.

  • There was a paragraph from “13th Gen” about the supposed materialism of Generation X. I’m recalling from memories of reading it 20 years ago but it was something like this.

    “Your parents can get divorced and abandon you. Your lovers and friends can betray you. Your employer can fire you on a whim. Your government is incompetently run. Your church is a sanctimonious money-grubbing sham. Institutions fail. Nations fall. But money will always be there, never judging or complaining, always acting as a perfect extension of your will. In sufficient quantities, it can deter any predator, overcome any obstacle, achieve any objective.”

    Personally, I don’t want to be filthy rich. I just never want to wake up again in the middle of the night to wonder how I’m going to pay a bill that comes due in a few days. I want to not be afraid. In 21st century America, money is the only way that can happen.

  • In the words of Henry Chinaski: “Hey, baby, nobody suffers like the poor.”

  • stardreamer42

    Maybe money can’t buy happiness — but poverty can’t buy ANYTHING.

  • Bethany

    Money can’t buy happiness directly, of course.

    Money, however, CAN buy security, education, good food, decent health care (both physical and mental), a comfortable place to live in a safe neighborhood with pleasant surroundings and maybe a nice garden (if you enjoy gardening), visits to museums and other cultural attractions, travel, the supplies necessary to pursue a hobby, the ability to outsource necessary tasks you dislike, in some cases the ability to go after an occupation you WANT instead of one you dislike but put up with because you need the money.

    None of those things guarantee happiness, but they sure as heck don’t hurt.

    Also, money buys and feeds kitties, so there’s that.

  • Bethany

    I think after a certain point, it’s not about the money or about the comforts it buys, rather it’s about power and social status.

  • purplekitte
  • I have never owned a car. I tried to save up money for one, but downtime between contracts and uncertainty about when the next contract would come made me unwilling to commit. Eventually the worsening economy made the downtime longer and it burned through all my savings, putting me back to square one.

    And yes, it has made things a little more difficult in some ways.

  • Dave Jonesy


    sylvia is a saint compared to you lying vultures….





  • At least public transport isn’t too terrible in WA. For the first few years I was here, I could walk or bus anywhere I needed to go and it was great when compared to living in the middle of nowhere with no buses at all in MI.

  • Maniraptor

    All completely true, but I do feel the need to point out that it’s pretty likely that CareerCast named newspaper reporter as the worst job precisely so that a lot of annoyed newspaper reporters would write articles about CareerCast. (Same sort of reason they named professor as least stressful job a few months earlier, but a little more direct.)

  • Aye, and I use it heavily. But try buying groceries or shopping for cloths, or a bulky home appliance of any sort. Not only do you have to cart the bags yourself to the bus stop, people do not appreciate you taking up too much space with them.

    This is doubly so because not every place is served equally well, and depending on how much you can afford you might be living quite a distance from where you need to go every day, or perhaps you have to transfer several times. This can make for very long commutes, and limit your options for finding employment or housing.

  • Lectorel

    You’re story is pretty much my mom’s, right down to location – she makes an amount she’s only ever disclosed to us as ‘more than $100,000 a year,’ even when I was a kid, but it’s only really been in the last five years or so that she’s really started being happy on a regular basis. I’m pretty sure that’s due to her deciding ‘fuck it, I’m making an effort to actually do things that make me happy’ instead of just coasting along.

    (As a side note on that, as her child, contact with the real world outside the bubble has been a constant series of low-level shocks as I readjust my understanding of what things should cost, what options are available to me, and what I should do in a crisis. It wasn’t until I was seventeen that I consciously realized I could get haircuts for cheaper than >$60. I’m still unlearning the habit of assuming money is an easily obtained, readily available resource.)

  • An extract for those not following the link:

    At Google Headquarters:

    “Okay, everyone, we control the world’s information. Now its time to turn evil. What’s the plan?”
    “Make boatloads of money?”
    “We already do!”
    “Set up a companywide CoD4: Modern Warfare tournament each week?”
    That’s not evil!
    “Ooh, dibs on the lobby TV!”
    “Okay, we suck at this.”

  • Foelhe

    Or to be slightly more generous, consumer culture.

    Put simplistically, there’s basically three levels of financial happiness: Not Enough, when you have to frantically scrape and save to make ends meet; Barely Enough, where you don’t have to work so hard at it but you’re still spending a ton of mental energy worrying about slipping into the first category; and Plenty, where you have so much money that it more or less becomes an irrelevant abstraction.

    The problem is that US culture, at least, puts more value into the second category. Having plenty and not using it to the fullest is seen as wasteful – sure, things might be stable, but what value is stability when you could be moving forward? So when someone who’s relatively affluent makes it into the third bracket, instead of settling into comfort and figuring out what new options they have, they yank the window upward. Which is why so many people don’t see the contradictions in the need-more-money/money-doesn’t-buy-happiness philosophy, and why people making six figures can still whine about how hard they have it.

    Which is not to say there aren’t some full-on money-grubbing assholes out there as well.

  • I remember seeing a quote going around Facebook the other day:

    “Money can’t buy you happiness, but money can buy you tea, which is kind of the same thing.”

  • Lori

    Personally, I don’t want to be filthy rich. I just never want to wake up
    again in the middle of the night to wonder how I’m going to pay a bill
    that comes due in a few days. I want to not be afraid. In 21st century
    America, money is the only way that can happen.

    This would be nice. I’ve totally given up on ever experiencing it again, but it would be nice.

  • J_Enigma32

    This isn’t even capitalism.

    Venture capitalism – capitalism where people invest in the community and open up their own businesses – requires these people to realize that if they fail, they won’t bottom out and get left stranded. If you’re just barely making it, then there’s no incentive for you to go out and make ANYTHING new, or open ANY new business, since you don’t have the time, the money, the energy, or the security.

    What happens, in short, is people stop investing. Those who want to open up their own small business don’t, because they know that if it doesn’t work, they’ll be shit out of luck. Small business and allowing people to start up their own independent firms for themselves, under their own management, is one of the driving forces behind capitalism.

    But if people don’t have the money, and they don’t have the sense of economic security, they won’t do it. Thus, innovation will be left solely in the hands of the massive(ly corrupt) corporations that lead to wonderful things like the BP Oil Spill, Bhopal, West Texas, and the tragedy in Bangladesh.

    Capitalism DOES need money to invest. But corporations are NOT capitalist enterprises. The corporation is anti-capitalist. Small businesses are where capitalism flourishes and shines. But you need to have socialism to support capitalism; without socialism and the security it provides to venture capitalists, capitalism falters and collapses back to the Imperialistic Neo-Feudalism that we always knew it was.

    They’re not supporting capitalism, they’re not taking a stand against communism. They’re support themselves, and they’ve convinced a bunch of damn fools to do the same thing.

  • LL

    “Money can’t buy happiness” is one of those things rich people say to make poor people feel better about being poor. Like most sanctimonious statements, the people saying them usually don’t really believe them. They just want to be perceived as such. Admitting that money really does make a difference in quality of life would be socialism. We must all pretend that America is a classless society and that anybody can grow up to be president or CEO.

  • gpike

    I know this feeling so well. In the 10 years I’ve been married there was maybe a 6-month period where we had 2 cars. We’ve never lived anywhere that had anything like decent public transit. I had to quit a job because it was an hour long bus ride to get to a job where I only worked 3-4 hour long shifts for minimum wage and the bumpy ride plus the physical nature of my job left my back in agony.

    Here on Guam it’s even worse – I’ve never even tried taking the bus here because there’s no guarantee it will even show up where I think the bus stop is and it supposedly stops running for like 4 hours in the middle of the day. >_>

  • Bethany

    I agree that consumer culture plays a big role in our never-ending drive to get MORE STUFF, but people have been accumulating ridiculous amounts of wealth as both a display of status and power and a means of obtaining status and power for basically all of recorded history. So I don’t think it’s just a consumer culture phenomenon.

  • banancat

    “I got 99 problems but money could solve about 73 of them” – Ben Franklin

  • Is there a link to that story lying around? I’d love to read it.

  • I am content

    I keep wondering if there’s some deeper meaning hidden in the fact that this is what Shylock says when he’s informed that he’s going to get off with losing half his fortune and being forced to convert to christianity.

  • If I’m driving a Honda and my neighbor is driving a Mercedes and my neighbor appears to be happier than me and I’m not aware of the factors driving my neighbor’s happiness and what is causing my dissatisfaction… then I might conclude that Mercedes = happiness which means that I need more money to be happy.

    This reminds me of someone I knew. When, near the end of high school, one of his friends treated his girlfriend to a weekend at a nice hotel, this guy made a jealous remark to the effect that he wished he could spend money at a fancy hotel to impress some girl. If it had been “I wish I had a girl who was that special to me” or “I wish I had that kind of money to spend on my sweetie”, I could have understood, but… no.

    And this guy still can’t figure out why none of his relationships last very long.

  • With the advances in food production and medicine we’ve made in the last couple hundred years, money can, for many people and to a large extent, buy health. And here’s another cliché: if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.

    And yet, though I am in pain 24/7, I would never switch places with Gwyneth Paltrow. Actually, it looks to me like on the extreme right side of the wealth curve, too much money = great unhappiness. I’d rather be on that end than the other, but the possibilities for greatest happiness seem to lie in the middle.

  • CharityB

    I agree.

    My thing is, it’s easier to get rid of money than to get money. If you’re unhappy because you’re too *rich*, you can just start gradually (or quickly) divesting assets and donating money until you’re back where you want to be. If your income is too high, you can use some of that money to go back to school and support yourself until you find a lower-paying but more emotionally rewarding career.

    Reaching the same destination when you’re starting on the *poor* side is also possible, but it’s a hell of a lot tougher because of the whole treadmill situation.

  • XD I’ve done it, actually. Nothing like trying to balance four large bags of groceries on your knee without losing your half-a-seat sitting privileges to the two annoyed teens sitting next to you.

  • Oh, I’m willing to believe that some of them genuinely aren’t happy. *Sighs* It’s so hard to get along when you only have your choice of one of two available Peruvian private islands and one has a quinoa farm and the other has a private bank… do you go for the one with its own lucrative income or the one for the tax advantages… why does this have to be so HARD

  • Something similar is described in Jacob Hacker’s “Money” book. The optimum amount of money to earn seemed to top out at around $100k a year, which would provide the ideal standard of living and quality of life desired by the majority of Americans.

  • Playing footsie with China and caving to the DMCA and purposely “modifying” people’s search results would start to approach it, IMV.

  • gpike

    In some situation it ends up being easier just hiking to the store and carrying groceries home in a backpack!

  • I’ve done that too! They made me hand over the backpack because they didn’t trust me to carry it in the store, though.

  • Well, to be fair, I did once have to explain to a friend who was saying, “What could [celebrity] have to be miserable about? She’s rich! Anyone that rich must just be whining for attention,” that no, money does not cure depression.

  • Yeah… not much does, and I’m as sympathetic with that as I can muster with obvious deficits, but there’s always that lizard part of me that says OH I’M SORRY NO REALLY LIFE IS HARD WELL IF YOU DON’T MIND I’LL JUST BE OVER HERE LICKING BREAKFAST OFF THIS GARBAGE CAN.

    But depression is irrational. It doesn’t care how good you have it otherwise. I just posted about depression on my blog today, and I might not have done a particularly great job of describing the experience, but oh yes, I understand it. It is irrespective of comfort. I’ve been depressed when I had it fairly good and I’ve been depressed when I was already in a terrible position and I just happen to have it in a latter time right now, which (when I have the capacity for resentment) makes everybody else’s depression seem like a first world problem, right up there with Starbucks not offering peppermint mocha frappuccinos outside of December. Boo hoo. My hart br8ks 4 u. ;_______;

    (Disclaimer: When I get badly depressed, the part of my brain that regulates APD behavior says “Eh, fuck it.” So I wind up being even more insensitive than usual. I’m having a moderately good day today, but that might not be clear when I’m describing what goes through my head on a bad day.)

  • The idea in the strip is that becoming incredibly successful then turning evil was Google’s plan from the beginning.

    It is not that they are not evil now that they are successful, just that they suck at being evil.

  • Hexep

    I always preferred to frame it as, ‘money can’t buy happiness, but it can insure the happiness you’ve already found through other means.’

  • Matri

    There’s the REAL “death panels” right there: Insurance companies.