It's official: Scientists say money actually can buy happiness

For households earning up to $123,000.
Fabienne Lang
An overjoyed young man surrounded by US dollars.
An overjoyed young man surrounded by US dollars.

RapidEye/iStock 

A recent study highlighted the fact that money can indeed buy happiness, specifically in household incomes of up to $123,000 and for a duration of six months, as the study authors mentioned in the journal PNAS.

The study was published on Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2022.

The experiment

The small study group included 200 volunteers across seven countries. Anonymous donors gave a one-time sum of US$10,000 to each volunteer via PayPal transfers through a partnership with TED organization.

The volunteers were told to spend all their money in the span of three months, followed by recording their levels of happiness on a monthly basis.

Alongside this, another control group of 100 volunteers were not given any cash and were also told to record their levels of happiness every month for three months.

The researchers asked the volunteers to rank how happy they were with their lives on a scale of one to seven, as well as how often they felt happy feelings (versus sadness) on a scale of one to five.

The groups of volunteers that had received $10,000 reported feeling happier after their three-month spending spree than those who did not receive any money. On top of that, they also reported still feeling happy three months later, when they weren't being given any money. Ultimately, they were happier than before the experiment started.

One note to make, people who earned over $123,000 a year did not report any noticeable improvements in their happiness or mood.

Moreover, the experiment took place in seven countries, three of which were low-income countries and four of which were high-income ones. These included Brazil, Indonesia, and Kenya for the low-income countries. The high-income ones included Australia, Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.

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The study showed that volunteers who received cash and lived in the low-income countries gained three times more happiness than those in high-income ones. On top of that, people who earned $10,000 per year reported gaining twice as much happiness than those bringing home $100,000 annually.

Data is still being processed to determine if specific purchases made people generally happier, as each participant recorded what they spent their money on.

The entire experiment is to determine whether or not wealth distribution promotes happiness. Given the $2 million for the experiment were voluntarily donated by two wealthy, anonymous citizens, the study's authors hope their data provides clear evidence that private citizens can improve net global happiness through voluntary redistribution to those with less.

An ongoing debate

The topic of money buying happiness has been a hot one for decades, with myriad studies proving both sides of the debate to be true.

"There is a lot of mixed research, and a lot of it does depend on the specifics of how much you’re giving, who you’re giving it to, what measures exactly you’re using and so forth,” Ania Jaroszewicz, a behavioral scientist at Harvard University, said to NBC News.

Jaroszewicz explained that in any study of money and happiness, outcomes can also vastly depend on the particular circumstances of people's lives and their expectations. Even though money can buy you nice things and meals or potentially gives you more time to relax or spend with your loved ones instead of working yourself to the bone, it doesn't remove issues unrelated to money, like health and personal relationships.

Abstract:

How much happiness could be gained if the world’s wealth were distributed more equally? Despite decades of research investigating the relationship between money and happiness, no experimental work has quantified this effect for people across the global economic spectrum. We estimated the total gain in happiness generated when a pair of high-net-worth donors redistributed US$2 million of their wealth in $10,000 cash transfers to 200 people. Our preregistered analyses offer causal evidence that cash transfers substantially increase happiness among economically diverse individuals around the world. Recipients in lower-income countries exhibited happiness gains three times larger than those in higher-income countries. Still, the cash provided detectable benefits for people with household incomes up to $123,000.