Does Money Buy Happiness After All?

"There's lies, damned lies, and statistics." -- Mark Twain

Recently, a controversial new study was released in which the authors claimed they found evidence that wealthier people are indeed happier than poorer people. If so, this would overturn dozens (if not hundreds) of prior studies that found either no correlation between wealth and happiness or even a negative correlation (that is, richer people are less happy than poorer ones). Given that I dedicated an entire chapter on this topic to The Bliss Experiment including analyzing many of the most interesting studies, it's essential to take a close look at this new claim.

I've taken the time to read the study from beginning to end, check the references and data, compare it to other research, and generally think it through. There's a lot that I can and will say about it but I realize that some of you aren't interested in wading through the technical ins and outs of the following analysis so for you, I'll cut to the chase:

This study is badly flawed to the point of being useless. To use some pointedly unscientific parlance: it's wrong, wrong, and more wrong in virtually every way imaginable. The conclusions don't stand. Our current understanding is correct: it's proven that wealth and happiness are not strongly correlated. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of studies that corroborate this (including those of Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman). Once we've got enough money to fulfill basic life needs, getting richer isn't going to do anything for your happiness -- and may even decrease it.

The first and important point: despite how the media portrays it, this isn't really a scientific study at all. Typically, a "scientific study"  means one of two things. Either it's a direct study of a group of subjects recruited by the researchers or it's a meta-analytic review of the known body of already published studies on the subject. Direct studies of subjects involve the researchers finding subjects, divise an experiment structure, test the subjects' response, guard against bias through standard practices as making the experiment double-blind, setting up a control group, and then carefully reporting the data. This wasn't that type of study. The other accepted type of study is called a meta-analysis. Often, there already exists a large number of studies in a field, some of which may claim contradictory results. In these instances, it can be valuable for researchers to conduct an analytical review of most or all the published studies in a field, looking for overarching themes, attempting to reconcile different conclusions, statistically analyzing the combined data, and so on. This "study" is not any kind of a systematic review of the body of literature in the field.

This "study" is in fact something that I've rarely encountered: it's a cherry-picked, manually selected slice of just a few studies -- out of hundreds -- that have been conducted on this topic. And it's mostly not even that. What the researchers have cherry-picked mostly aren't other studies but mostly other polls (and again, to be clear, just a small fraction of those). Polls are not scientific studies, nor do they claim to be. Polls are self-reported and non-verified statements from people in which both the methodology used and the specific wording of the questions greatly influences the answers received. This is why political polling -- who's winning an election before it happens? -- is notoriously unreliable and the results can be radically different depending on which company conducted the poll.

When it comes to self-reported answers, what's the one thing that people lie about the most? Their income level. People will tell you their race, religion, and political party but income: that can't trust it without verification. This isn't just my assumption, there's plenty of evidence, such as here and here.  Any credit card company processing applications will tell you this. One survey found that 55% of men lie to their friends about their income. Income is consistently overstated;  many of these "rich" people who are supposedly so happy aren't actually so rich in real life.

But even if polls were valid scientific studies (they are not) what's worse is that the authors of this paper clearly and unequivocally cherry-pick just a few select surveys. Here's why cherry-picking a tiny group of polls is so problematic: If you're not conducting any original research and you're not doing any kind of comprehensive review of the literature, then all you've done is report on your own biases. Why were these surveys included but not others that showed different results? The authors don't say. If one is trying to do a meta-review of the many studies on happiness and wealth, why would you only look at those using the poll/survey format? The authors don't say. They chose what they wanted to look at because they wanted to.

For these reasons alone, this article (we shouldn't even call it a "study") is meaningless. When we delve more deeply, it gets worse. I've personally read tthe original, raw data plus the conclusions gleaned from that by the researchers who originally collected it. In several instances, the authors of this new paper have clearly and unequivocally misstated their data (or maybe they just didn't understand it, not sure which is worse). I could give at least a half-dozen examples but since that would make this post intolerably long, here's just a couple observations:

1. In this new paper, the authors make no attempt to control for or  factor in or out other reasons for why people are feeling happy or unhappy. In fact, some of the polling data that the authors base their conclusion that happiness and wealth are positively correlated isn't even asking people about their level of "happiness." In the Gallup World Poll that the authors cite, most of the answers people provided was in response to this question: "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in your personal life at this time?" Life satisfaction and "happiness" are not the same thing. When people are thinking about their "life satisfaction" they are thinking of dozens, if not hundreds, of factors beyond their income level. It's a pure assumption on the part of the authors that people in lower GDP countries report lower "life satisfaction" because of their income. That's nowhere in the raw data. Many of these people live in corrupt governments, have no healthcare, often dwelling in politically, socially, and religiously unstable environments. They are comparing counties like Somalia with the United States on a general scale of "life satisfaction." You can't just assume that the reason for the Somalis lower life satisfaction is money.  Countries like Somalia are in a state of civil war, there is no government, and people are being murdered in the streets. Infant mortality rates are high. The country is a mess. There is no reason to assume that their lack of money is the sole or even main reason for their reporting lower life satisfaction. On the flip side, in many wealthier countries, it's not just that people are materially richer, it's that we live in stable democracies. We aren't being hacked to pieces on the street, people have freedom of expression and religion, among many other things. We have better healthcare, less religious strife, and a host of other positive things going for us.

Unless you first control for all the other variables -- the other possible reasons that people might have lower or higher life satisfaction -- you can't assume it's because of their material wealth. And that's the key point: this data does not control for other variables or possibilities. All it tells us is (as one example) that people in Somalia are less happy than people in Scandanavia. It does not and cannot tell us why. Because the authors make no attempt to control for any of the variables, their conclusions are scientifically worthless. If you don't control for other possible reasons -- and this case there are dozens, possibly hundreds of other factors -- you cannot attribute the response to just one of them.

2. The authors of this new paper fail to report that in many cases, the original researchers disagree with these new conclusions. Here's but one example: this new paper puts a huge amount of emphasis on one small survey that looks specifically at the United States, all derived from a single Gallup poll conducted on December 6-9, 2007. It's interesting that the Gallup people, who had asked this same question/poll for decades (not just once in December 2007) concluded pretty much the opposite that the authors of this new paper. Gallup believes that their results actually show that increasing wealth does not correlate with increasing happiness. That's because Gallup looked at the entire body of the data they've collected over decades not just one poll in isolation. What their full body of data revealed is that Americans were no happier in 2007 than they were in 1957, despite a HUGE INCREASE in American's standard of living. Americans are so much wealthier in every conceivable way than we were in the 1950's. Our per capita income is higher, the purchasing power of our money is higher, we have access to more material goods and things that would have been perceived as "luxuries" in the 1950's than ever, yet our self-reported happiness level has not changed. That's the problem with isolating single variables in time.  It's also worth noting that Gallup themselves discussed this in their 2007 results but that the authors of this new paper omitted any mention of these observations and conclusions even though they were printed just one paragraph below the part that they did quote. Hmmm….

Much more could be said. The above is just the tip of the iceberg. I found flaws in the author's data selection, methodology, and interpretation on every single page (sometimes every paragraph) of this paper. If we had the time or inclination, we could easily probe such myriad flaws as what the authors use as the threshold to define "wealth" (in several studies cited, just $64,000!), how they willfully ignore some of the data they've claimed to incorporate when it disagrees with their conclusion, the arbitrary way in which the authors designate countries as high or low income, the categorical refusal to ever consider alternative explanations for their viewpoints, how much of the data the authors of this new paper use is taken entirely out of the context it was corrected, and the larger philosophical question as to what, exactly, survey-based responses really record. In several cases, the questions asked and responses given seem to be picking up people's (mistaken) beliefs that if they had more money, they would be happier and not their actual reality. Many of the questions are really revealing that people are capable of generating limitless desire. Once we consumed by wanting possessions, luxury goods, and material riches, there's no end to how many things we can imagine wanting or buying. But is capturing people's limitless imagination and infinite capacity for desire the same as saying that we are actually happier when we actually attain these things? (Answer: of course not.)

For those that would like to see peruse at least a fifteen quality studies that directly contradict these findings, read here.

The bottom line is that this non-study is bad science of the worst magnitude. I find it revealing that the authors made sure to hire a PR firm and release this paper directly to the media first, before any actual experts had the chance to read it, review it, or prepare a response. To me, the whole thing seems little more than a shameless PR ploy by some folks all too desperate for attention. I guess the quiet life of an academic making meaningful and honest contributions to society isn't good enough for some people.

What makes it particularly sad is that I'm sure many unsuspecting folks will read the gullible media accounts of the study--all of which were published with the reporters taking it at face value and not seeking out other expert opinions-- and believe this drivel, thereby tricking over 99% of the world's population (that's billions of miserable souls) to thinking that they have no shot of genuine happiness.

Eventually, the shoddy conclusions of these two PR hounds will be discarded. No one gets away with the flim-flam of a quick media hit forever. But in the meantime: if you want to find genuine happiness for yourself, don't you believe them for a minute.