When 21-year-old comedian Jaboukie Young-White took the stage on Jimmy Fallon last week, he spoke about the current trend of older writers coming to terms with the fact that millennials are "just poor." And while his act was a true treat — "Why aren't millennials buying diiiiamonds?" he intoned, mimicking a recent headline — it shone a light on the distinct division between American generations. We earn differently and we spend differently, which has prompted scientists to explore how the amount of money you earn affects your perception of happiness. Can you really buy happiness? Recent research suggests "no." Does the amount in your bank account alter your ability to feel compassion? Um ... yeah, my dudes, it kind of really does.
In a new study released by the American Psychological Association in the journal Emotion, scientists found that the ways in which a person experiences and defines "happiness" are related to their financial situation. Researchers, led by Paul Piff, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine, surveyed 1,519 Americans, whose demographics were considered to be nationally representative.
"Higher income has many benefits, including improved health and life satisfaction, but is it associated with greater happiness?" wrote Dr. Piff in the introduction to his study.
Each participant was first asked about their annual household income and then subjected to a series of questions centered around the seven emotions believed to make up the core of "happiness": amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride.
The intent was to measure a person's tendency to experience each emotion. Though none of these happy feelings were named during the study (they weren't, like, "Hey, Richie Rich, do you love people or nah?"), participants were asked to rate their agreement with certain statements that conveyed specific feelings. To measure compassion, for example, they were asked to what extent they agreed with, "Nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside," reports Science Daily.
Piff and his team found that those higher on the socio-economic scale were more likely to experience the elements of happiness that were focused internally, that related to an individual's personal emotions and experiences, particularly contentment, pride and amusement. Poorer individuals reported greater levels of outwardly-facing feelings — love and compassion were rated the highest within the demographic.
Dr. Piff is quick to point out that the findings of this study are not black and white. Money is not unequivocally tied to being happy. Rather, it affects which elements of happiness you might feel.
"What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness," said Dr. Piff. "While wealthier individuals may find greater positivity in their accomplishments, status and individual achievements, less wealthy individuals seem to find more positivity and happiness in their relationships, their ability to care for and connect with others."
While the old adage, "You can't buy happiness," remains true, the answer has become a bit more complicated. So why does money dictate our way of experiencing the world? Piff suggests that wealthier individuals are more focused on self-sufficiency and independence, an embodiment of the American "bootstraps" mentality that has plagued our country since its founding. Sure, it's easy enough to focus on yourself when you're succeeding.
But in a capitalist culture like the United States, especially one run by a government intent on giving as little aid to its constituents as possible, community becomes a means of survival for poorer folks. No, you can't buy happiness, but you can buy better healthcare, better nutrition and a safer living environment. In the absence of these elements, interdependence becomes a necessity.
"These findings suggest that lower-income individuals have devised ways to cope, to find meaning, joy and happiness in their lives despite their relatively less favorable circumstances," wrote Piff.