The fact that John Lennon would have turned 70 a week ago gave many parents an occasion to counsel their children to give peace a chance and remember that money can't buy love.
Somewhere, I am almost sure, some smart-aleck kid pulled off his headphones briefly to reply: "Yeah, well money can buy happiness." And it turns out the little brat is sort of right. In the latest pillar of happiness research - a growing field, actually, which makes sense when you think about how much we know about depression - an American economist, Angus Deaton, and the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, teamed up to determine whether money actually makes us feel better than we would without it.
The survey covered almost half a million people and asked them basic questions about how they were feeling, their general perspective on where their lives were headed and how much income they earned. For the most part, people are hunky-dory. About 85 per cent of those in the survey reported smiling and feeling happiness each day, while a significantly smaller number - less than 40 per cent - confessed to feeling stress. But the researchers also found that money matters, at least up to a point.
The researchers found that people earning lower incomes tend to have more stress and emotional pain, of the type common to divorce, ill health and loneliness. Those earning higher annual salaries battled fewer of these negative feelings - at least until the US$75,000 (Dh275,000) threshold. Above that level, there was no indication that earning more money provided any ability to turn frowns upside down.
But here's where the researchers make an important distinction. They identify two separate kinds of emotional states: one is our day-by-day, hour-by-hour emotional state - happy or sad, angry or content - while the other is our deeper feeling about the way our lives are going. Money can't do anything about the former. Your boss a little crabby today? It will not do any good to remind him that he makes twice as much as you. His mood is not going to change.
However, those earning more money do generally feel better about where their lives are headed. Even going well above the $75,000 mark, making a larger income continues to add to a person's impression that the trip around this mortal coil is progressing rather nicely. "High incomes don't bring you happiness but they do bring you a life you think is better," the researchers wrote. "We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness."
The research is not entirely earth-shattering but it does highlight some truths about money that are sometimes overlooked. On the one hand, the whole money-can't-buy-me-love hypothesis seems to hold up. A pile of cash may allow you to buy a new watch, but it will not provide the most meaningful forms of pleasure, like spending time with people you care about and staying away from death and disease.
We all have problems of some form or fashion, and money does not change that reality. What money does is make those problems easier to manage at times. According to the survey, the lower people's incomes were below $75,000, the less confident they were that they would able to deal effectively with the problems they encountered. This is understandable, as a financial cushion is many times a prerequisite for people who want to take time off work to care for a loved one or splurge on a holiday with old pals.
To cite one example, about 51 per cent of divorced parents making less than $1,000 per month said they felt stressed or sad, while only 24 per cent of those making more than $3,000 per month said the same. Or perhaps more telling, 70 per cent of those earning less than $1,000 who said they had a headache also said they were either stressed or sad. Among higher earners with headaches, only 38 per cent said they also felt stressed or sad.
That is why $75,000 seemed to be the threshold of where money ceased to provide basic human happiness because, in the US, that is roughly the amount that allows most people to manage basic needs such as food, shelter and health care for their families. Money does not always add to our general contentment, but it can reduce some pretty significant worries. At the end of the day, our relationships between money and happiness often do not make much sense. I have told friends on many occasions that I was never happier professionally than my earliest years in Texas, when I was working long hours on the police beat and earning not much more than minimum wage. Of course, my list of concerns and obligations was noticeably smaller then.
Would I take that job at the same salary right now if offered the chance? Not on your life. Am I happy here and now? Ask me come next pay day.