Yesterday the SMH reported on the findings of a global Gallup Poll megastudy of happiness, covering nearly 137,000 respondents in 132 countries (the report is based on this gated Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article).
The figure below usefully unpacks the relationship between income and different aspects of well-being.
The steepest line (the unbroken one) tracks the results of a question which asked respondents to rate their lives from 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life). That is quite strongly related to income. The JPSP authors (including Ed Diener, a lead figure in subjective well-being research) note that this is a stronger effect than is found within nations. They suggest that there may now be a global material well-being standard against which people compare themselves.* As the SMH put it, ‘when it comes to happiness it turns out we are not just comparing ourselves with the Joneses, but the Wongs and the Kumars as well.’
Consistent with other research, the figure shows that we need to be cautious in inferring day-to-day emotional states from broad assessments of life. For positive feelings, people were asked if they experienced enjoyment and smiling or laughing a lot the previous day. There were high rates of doing so across all income groups with only a very slight upward trend with income.
For negative feelings people were asked if they experienced worry, sadness, depression or anger a lot the previous day. In the figure, the proportions of people saying ‘no’ this question is recorded. Here money does seem to have an effect, with affluent people being much more likely than poor people to report no negative feelings. This is consistent with an argument long made by Australian well-being researcher Robert Cummins that the psychological benefit of more money is more in avoiding negative emotions than in generating positive emotions.
The JPSP article ends with the standard happiness researcher observation that ‘societies must pay careful attention to social and pscyhological variables, not simply to enlarging their economies’. While the idea that there is more to life than money is a commonplace truth, what this data shows is that improving their economies is the most realistic thing that most non-rich societies can do to improve well-being.
* Though Diener and his co-authors defend the question used, I think it may exaggerate this effect – people in poorer countries may be reasonably content with their circumstances, but aware that other countries are richer or have either desirable attributes they lack. A question asking people to simply rate their life satisfaction on a 0 to 10 scale may get a weaker association with income.