MLK Day And The Pursuit of Happiness

Suggested manufacturer's retail price: $75,000/year.
Today’s blog tackles a simple subject, the secret of a happy life. Hey, it’s a holiday, so we’re going with an easy topic.

Almost everyone I know — conservative and liberal, wealthy and non-wealthy, spiritual and non-spiritual – would say the happiness of a life should be measured in emotional terms rather than financial terms. That is, they would say the key to a happy life is not to accumulate as much stuff as possible, but to accumulate more positive emotional experiences than negative emotional experiences. For example, a happy life is one that includes more joy, fascination and affection, and less anxiety, sadness and anger. Correct?

Despite this, many of us live our lives in a way that suggests that more money and more stuff is the secret to happiness. We work long hours away from things that give us happiness and subject ourselves to stressful work environments all, we tell ourselves, in pursuit of happiness.

Is that logical?

To a large extent, it is. So sayeth a 2010 Princeton /Gallup /Healthways study. The study tracked people’s emotional well being, or “the quality of a person’s everyday experience, such as joy, fascination, anxiety, sadness, anger and affection.” The study found:

“…as income decreased from $75,000, people reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress. The pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty. In other words, being divorced, being sick, and other painful experiences have worse effects on a poor person than on a rich.”

So, pursuing higher incomes does seem to lead to a happiness gain, because the day-to-day existence at higher income levels reduces overall sadness and stress.

But interestingly, the study also found:

“…emotional well being leveled off at $75,000/year. In other words, the quality of the respondents’ everyday emotional experiences did not improve beyond an income of approximately $75,000 a year; above a certain income level, people’s emotional well being is constrained by other factors, such as temperament and life circumstances.”

So for the 11% of the U.S. population earning personal incomes above $75,000/year, having a higher income does not lead to additional happiness gain.

(Side note: Interestingly, incomes above $75,000 ARE associated with a higher “life evaluation” or “a person’s thoughts about his or her life.” As the study’s authors concluded, “High incomes don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life that you think is better.”)

Remember, the $75,000/year income tipping point identified by Princeton is an average. The precise tipping point obviously varies depending on each individual’s life circumstances. For example, the level may be higher if you have a lot of kids, a lot of debt, no familial financial safety net, or you live in a high cost community. But the important point for this discussion is that a point of diminishing returns does seem to exist where the pursuit of higher incomes no longer furthers the pursuit of happiness.

Today is the holiday celebrating the life of a man who said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” That seems like as good a day as any to contemplate where our personal income-happiness tipping point lies.

– Loveland

12 thoughts on “MLK Day And The Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Always a fascinating subject. A while ago doing a little research on the psychological consequences of the recession, while loss of income produced staggering stressors it went much deeper to how we perceive ourselves, to a loss of personal identity, dreams and aspirations. All of which seemed to be evaporating in 2008 and 2009. How intimately we tend to define ourselves by material acquisitions—and our credit rating.

    U of M Psych Prof. David Lykken arrived at a theory of the “Happiness Set-Point”.

    “Lykken was the proponent of a set-point theory of happiness, which argues that one’s sense of well-being is half determined by genetics and half determined by circumstances, and has been the subject of international media attention.[3] His research findings suggest that a person’s baseline levels of cheerfulness, contentment, and psychological satisfaction are largely a matter of heredity.”

    David Myers, another prominent researcher on the subject:

    1. Joe Loveland says:

      Interesting. So Lykken doesn’t think we can pull our attitudes up by our mental bootstraps, because genetics and our circumstances override free will?

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Others will have a better knowledge of the Lykken study but I believe he would stop at “predisposed”, since we have the capacity to view our circumstances in a different light (instead of “catastrophe” a “set-back” etc), although as I recall his Twins studies point heavily to the influence of heredity.

        Personally, I think our culture “teaches” us early on to put exceptional emphasis on external approbation.

  2. PM says:

    Thanks for a timely reminder.

    Yes, the study that found the $75,000.00 figure was by Daniel Kahneman, who recently came out with a fascinating book, “Thinking, fast and slow”, which is sitting on my table waiting to be read……

    In any event, i always think of there being 2 basic sources of happiness/satisfaction–internal and external.External has to do with what others think of you (status, approbation, etc.) while internal is what you think of yourself (think of Buddhism). As a general rule it seems to me that those who are driven to amass the most $$ tend to have a dominant external view of happiness. There the problem is that their happiness is always temporary–beyond their control, because there is always someone younger, better looking, smarter and richer catching up to you.

    Sort of a wisdom comes with age thing (and the inability to keep up).

      1. PM says:

        I don’t really know. I am sure that there is some complex interaction of nature and nurture here.

        I am pretty certain that it is possible for people to change to a more internal source–I think that there is plenty of evidence from various communities (religious, etc) that show that this is possible. At the same time, in almost all of those communities, there are distinctions and gradations, which suggest that even there status is important.

        for an excellent (and convincing) diatribe about the problems of external sources of happiness and achievement, see “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn: (

        Another interesting read on the topic (short and fascinating) is “Status Anxiety” by Alain de Botton. Not necessarily comprehensive, but beautifully written.

        1. Dennis Lang says:

          Yes, de Botton, how these values and perceptions change across cultures and generations. And Scott Sandage: “Born Losers a History of Failure in America”.

  3. john sherman says:

    You could go back a couple of thousand years to the “stoic fraction”; the stoics believed happiness was achieved when the numerator (that is the number on top isn’t it) desires and the denominator, the capacity to satisfy desires, equaled one. One could correct an imbalance, i.ed., unhappiness, either by increasing ones capacity to satisfy desires, e.g., make more money or reduce ones desires.

    Still, while money can’t buy happiness, it can provide more interesting and varied forms of misery.

  4. Bruce benidt says:

    Bravo Joe and all. I’m sure finding that giving up a little dough and gaining time — for biking for friends for family for hanging in the hammock — is a great trade.
    That may be tested one day when I lose enough business to not be able to eat, but we’ll see.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Just a hunch but I’m thinking Benidt, formerly globe-trotting rogue journalist, is bored beyond verbalization in that damn hammock. When last spotted, sipping an unidentified libation in the iconic Oak Bar at the Lex there was a novel in the works. So, where is it!? We await.

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