Working At Being Happy

by: Doug Michaelides

Everyone works to live.  Some of us live to work.  Either way our happiness is inextricably linked, for better or worse, with our work.  If we better understood the nature of this linkage, perhaps we could look forward to greater happiness in 2012.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index was a daily survey of 1,000 US residents conducted by the Gallup Organization.  An analysis of more than 450,000 responses from 2008 – 2009 revealed the impact of money (income) on two aspects of subjective well-being:  emotional well-being (the frequency and intensity of experienced feelings that make one’s life pleasant or unpleasant – think of it as “happiness”) and life evaluation (how people think about their life when asked – i.e. life “satisfaction”).

Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, from the Princeton University Center for Health and Well-being, analyzed the data and found that income correlates more closely to life evaluation (satisfaction) than daily emotional well-being (happiness). But happiness does rise with income up to about $75,000 annually.  Apparently, past a certain level of stable income, an individual’s emotional well-being is constrained by other factors in their temperament and life circumstances (health, loneliness, etc.).  Similarly, low income exacerbates the emotional pain of misfortunes such as divorce, ill health and being alone (basically it sucks to be poor, especially in bad times).  For you math geeks, the analysis looks at the correlation against log income since this reveals the impact of relative differences in income.

The research shows that in the broadest sense money does buy happiness:  increasing income increases a person’s life satisfaction even among those who are already well off, and it has a positive effect on happiness up to a (fairly generous) point.  Of course, happiness also depends strongly on social and psychological factors like respect from friends and family, reliability of friends and relatives, number of working hours and job satisfaction.  Knowing this, we have the ability to make some conscious choices about our behaviour, and where we spend our time, to make the trade-off between happiness and life satisfaction.  Like so many things in life, optimizing happiness and life satisfaction is a balancing act.

But it should make us all at least a little happy to realize that, unlike the majority of people in the world, we are blessed to be satisfied enough to even consider these choices.

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