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The money-and-happiness correlation
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"A lot of the happiness we get from money we don't get from money, per se -- we get it from our money divided by our neighbor's money. So much of our satisfaction with our income is relative, not absolute; it's not based on the number of dollars we make, it's the number of dollars we make relative to the number of dollars that other people around us are making. When people say, 'Gosh, if I could just earn a little more I'd be happier,' well, if you're the poorest guy in the neighborhood, that might be true, even if you're the poorest guy in Greenwich, Conn. But if you're the richest guy in the neighborhood, even if you're the richest guy in the Bronx, it probably isn't true."

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Gilbert says one way to free ourselves from the "money-go-round" is to recognize when enough is enough.

"People would be wise to earn money up to the point of inflection, to the point where more money isn't going to make much of a difference," he says. "One of the things that people have to think about when they talk about money and happiness is where they are in their reference group. If you're in the middle or high end of your reference group, more money isn't going to make it better. If you're in the low end, it actually might make a difference."

'Chicken-and-egg-stasy'
Paul Taylor says Americans have always stalked life's pleasures, so studying the causes seems prudent.

"The pursuit of happiness has had a particular resonance in our own national history; it's embedded right there in our founding document. But it has a pride of place in the whole of human history; human beings want to be happy. So understanding what the track record has been and what elements contribute to that pursuit is important," he says.

As executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center, Taylor headed up a February 2006 survey -- "a snapshot," he calls it -- of how that pursuit is going early into the new millennium.

February 2006 survey -- a snapshot
Among its findings:
Contrary to expectations, however:

Where income is concerned, the Pew survey found that happiness does indeed increase with income; those who said they were "very happy" increased consistently with income, from 24 percent in the under-$30,000 income category to 49 percent in the $100,000-plus category.

But Taylor is quick to point out that there's a chicken-and-egg element to these findings that might lead to misinterpretation: "Perhaps money leads to happiness. Perhaps happiness leads to money. Or perhaps both are influenced by some other, more powerful factor."

Whatever the case, Taylor says the findings indicate that while money might not make you happy, not having money certainly contributes to unhappiness.

"The linear relationship that 'the more income you have, the happier you are' has been around a long time, despite the persistence of the old adage, 'Money doesn't buy you happiness.' Well, the one may not buy the other, but they do seem to hang out together in ways that suggest there is a relationship between the two," he says.

 
 
Next: "it's friendship and being loved ... that makes life worth living."
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