Money and Happiness: Happiness Keeps Increasing Past $75,000 a Year

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Did you know there was an iPhone app called Track Your Happiness? The app basically does what the name suggests:

A few times a day, you’ll get a notification and be asked some questions about your experience at that moment. The idea is that by measuring your experience at many individual moments, you’ll get an accurate picture of your life and the determinants of your happiness.

After collecting over 1.7 million data points from 30,000+ app users, here is the research paper Experienced well-being rises with income, even above $75,000 per year by Matt Killingsworth, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Thanks to reader Al for the tip. Taken from the “Significance” section:

Past research has found that experienced well-being does not increase above incomes of $75,000/y. This finding has been the focus of substantial attention from researchers and the general public, yet is based on a dataset with a measure of experienced well-being that may or may not be indicative of actual emotional experience (retrospective, dichotomous reports). Here, over one million real-time reports of experienced well-being from a large US sample show evidence that experienced well-being rises linearly with log income, with an equally steep slope above $80,000 as below it. This suggests that higher incomes may still have potential to improve people’s day-to-day well-being, rather than having already reached a plateau for many people in wealthy countries.

Here is a chart from the paper that illustrates how “experienced well-being” keeps increasing with log(income).

Why do I keep making log in bold? Because even though it was a long time ago, I still remember something about logarithms! The only two charts in the paper emphasize the nice line before and after the $75,000 income marker. This might confuse a quick reader to think that happiness keeps increasing linearly with income. In reality, here is a graphic (source) that shows the difference between rising linearly with n vs log(n). The relationship between happiness as income increases looks like the red line below.

If you read the entire paper, this is addressed (emphasis mine):

When interpreting these results, it bears repeating that well-being rose approximately linearly with log(income), not raw income. This means that two households earning $20,000 and $60,000, respectively, would be expected to exhibit the same difference in well-being as two households earning $60,000 and $180,000, respectively. The logarithmic relationship implies that marginal dollars do matter less the more one earns, while proportional differences in income have a constant association with well-being regardless of income.

In order to match the amount of happiness increase from $20,000/yr to $60,000/yr income, you would have to go from $60,000 to $180,000 year, or then $180,000 to $540,000 a year, and so on. Here a quick sketch that I made of this (gives me a reason to use my new $34 knockoff Apple pencil).

That… sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Happiness increases with money quickly at lower incomes, and as your income grows the incremental increases are smaller (but still goes up a bit). If you make $150,000 a year now, getting a $25,000 annual raise will still make you little happier, but nearly as much as someone earning $50,000 a year now.

If the past research said that you got zero additional happiness past $75,000 year, that would have been the surprising thing. If happiness forever increased directly in proportion with income, that also would have been surprising.

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Comments

  1. Very cool explanation. I saw headlines around this, but hadn’t dug into it and these conclusions are different than the headlines I had seen.

  2. Yeah I always doubted that finding that income didn’t matter above 75k.

    THe term for this is “diminishing returns”. Makes sense to me.

    There is a huge improvement in happiness between being homeless in a ditch vs a stable middle class life. But theres much less difference from having enough to afforrd a 5 series BMW vs the 3 series.

  3. The figure has been $75k for at least 15 years. Maybe it’s time to adjust for inflation.

  4. As Jim said, ‘diminishing returns’ is a good way of explaining it for most people. This is particularly important because the vast majority of people cannot maintain a logarithmic rise in income over time. You might see some really big raises early on, but then it tends to flatten out.

    Often, people reach a point at which they might be spending a lot of energy to get promoted and working in more demanding roles, without considering that its brining only marginal gains in happiness. Arguably, the relationship then swaps, where earning the next $20k/year will actually diminish happiness because of the additional time, effort, and stress required.

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