People feel happiness in different ways—and one possible factor is how much money they make, according to new research. People with higher incomes tend to feel more positive emotions focused on themselves, say researchers, while those who earn less take greater pleasure in their relationships with other people.
The new study, published in the journal Emotion, isn’t the first to call into question the idea that making more money leads to greater happiness. But it’s unique in that it looked at different types of happiness—and how social class might affect them—using surveys of more than 1,500 adults from diverse backgrounds all across the U.S.
People were asked about their household income and also answered questions designed to measure how often they experienced seven emotions considered to be the core of happiness: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride. Some of those emotions, like contentment and pride, tend to focus inward on one’s self, the authors say. Others—like love, compassion and awe—tend to focus on outside people, things or the surrounding environment.
When the researchers compared survey responses of the highest earners to those of the lowest, they found a significant difference: Wealthier people experienced more contentment, pride and amusement, while poorer people reported more love, compassion and being more awed by the world around them. Both groups experienced enthusiasm at the same levels.
“People who make more money were more likely to experience happiness derived from their own accomplishments,” says lead author Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California Irvine. “I think that makes sense, in part, because they are a little more self-reliant and don’t have to depend on other people.”
Piff says the study’s findings add to scientists’ understanding of the relationship between income, happiness and personal values. “The more money you have, the more you should be able to afford things that equal happiness, but research continues to show that that’s not necessarily the case,” he says. “Having money does seem to translate into being able to experience certain kinds of happiness—but it may also make you less likely to experience other kinds.”
With so many negative health outcomes associated with poverty, Piff says it’s encouraging to see that people with lower incomes experience certain types of happiness at high levels. It’s possible, he says, that people with lower incomes form stronger bonds with others to help cope with less favorable circumstances.
The study was not able to determine whether income actually influenced which emotions people felt, and Piff says it’s possible that the relationship could go either—or both—ways. It could be that making more money skews how people think and feel things, he says, or it could be that people who value pride and their own achievements are more likely to pursue high-paying jobs and earn higher salaries.
Determining which of those is the case is difficult, Piff says, since it’s not easy to manipulate people’s wealth (or perceived wealth) in experimental settings. But in other research, he and his colleagues have attempted to do just that—and he says their results lend strong support to the former hypothesis, rather than the latter.
“When we make people feel wealthier, we show that it moves their levels of compassion and their focus on other people,” Piff says. “I’m not saying that wealth changes everything, but it does seem to shift your social focus away from the people around you and toward independence and self-sufficiency.”