“Money can’t buy happiness”; it’s the annoying cliché too vague to define or pin down, mostly due to the fact that it tries to fit the varying struggles of every socioeconomic class and financial situation under one blanket statement. A recent study, published in the journal Emotion, affirms the trivialness of the statement, but it does reveal money’s power to influence the way we experience happiness. According to the researchers’ findings, people with higher incomes experience positive emotions as it relates to themselves, while people with lower incomes tend to feel the most positive emotions relating to their relationships with others.
Surveying over 1,500 adults of various backgrounds and incomes across the United States, the researchers asked participants a series of questions to examine how they internalized seven different emotions related to happiness: amusement, awe, compassion, contentment, enthusiasm, love and pride. Emotions such as contentment and pride were included to focus on happiness within the self, while emotions like love and compassion were included to help analyze how participants valued their relationships.
In comparing the top-earning participants to the lowest-earning participants, a key difference shined through: top-earners experienced contentment, pride, and amusement on a higher level, and low-earners experienced love, compassion, and awe on a higher level. Interestingly, both groups tested evenly on experiencing enthusiasm.
“Upper and lower class individuals possess different resources (e.g., income) and inhabit distinct environments, which shape their concerns and priorities in unique ways. Increased material resources afford upper-class individuals greater autonomy and reduced exposure to social and environmental threat, giving rise to an internal, self-oriented focus,” writes lead study author Paul Piff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California Irvine.
“By contrast,” Piff writes, “lower class individuals are exposed to more threats to their well-being (e.g., increased crime, poorly funded schools), and they possess fewer resources to cope with these threats. As a result, lower class individuals develop an external, other-oriented focus.”
Could this study be proof that money changes the way we experience happiness and the world around us? There were certain limitations to the study, such as the fact that money isn’t the only indication of social class, and one’s place in the world can be subjective to other factors besides finances. “It will be important to build upon and extend our findings in other ways. Research should test other measures of social class, including subjective social class identity), to ascertain whether different facets of social class are differentially associated with emotion,” reads the study.
The researchers also point out the fact that the study only examines half the equation; to draw succinct conclusions on happiness, they must explore negative emotions as well. “Future work should also examine class differences in other-regarding emotions like gratitude and appreciation, and more negative, self-critical emotions like embarrassment and guilt,” concluded the study.