“Money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.”-Spike Milligan
Over the past week, you may have seen some headlines about a recent study that found many people will choose money over happiness. After looking more closely at the actual results of this study, I’m not so sure that’s the case…
Choosing money over happiness?
The study was based on a survey of three “populations” in which respondents were asked to choose between an $80k/year job with reasonable hours and 7.5 hours of sleep per night (Option 1) and a $140k/year job with longer hours and only 6 hours of sleep per night (Option 2). Each respondent was also asked which option would make them happier.
The soundbite is that, when given the choice between a job with longer hours and more pay vs. a job with more reasonable hours and less pay, many people choose the former — even if that higher paying job would result in decreased happiness. See here and here for examples. But is that really the case?
Interestingly, this pattern of choosing money over happiness was most evident in one population in particular. Care to guess which one? Yep, it was the college students.
In this population… Of the people that thought Option 2 (higher pay, less sleep) would make them personally more happy, nearly all of them (98%) chose Option 2. No real surprise there — when a higher monetary reward correlates with happiness, people choose the higher reward.
But… Of the people that thought Option 1 (lower pay, more sleep) would make them personally more happy, 44% still chose Option 2. In other words, for nearly half of these respondents the monetary reward (and all that it comes with) was enough to make them choose against their own personal happiness.
Interesting, but what about the other populations, which are much more likely to represent “average” Americans with real-world life experiences? Well, the results are quite different.
In the Denver sample…. Of the people that thought Option 2 (higher pay, less sleep) would make them personally more happy, nearly all of them (97%) once again chose Option 2. But of the people that thought Option 2 would make them less happy, the proportion that still opted for this choice fell to 20%.
What about that nationwide phone survey? Well, of those who though Option 2 would make them more happy, 95% went for it. But for those that though Option 2 would make them less happy, just 9% chose it.
Go beyond the headlines
These are interesting numbers no matter how you slice them, but the conclusion that people in general are choosing money over happiness isn’t quite as clear-cut as the talking heads would have you believe.
What’s really intriguing to me about these data is that the college students appear to be the outliers. Perhaps this reflects a generational difference, or maybe an educational difference, but I suspect it’s something different… I suspect that once people get out there in the real world, their views change.
The ramifications of working long hours, seeing your family less, and sleeping little begins to sink in, and people start to realize that there’s more to life than money. Whatever the case, the selective presentation of these results in the mainstream media is just one more example of why it pays to dig deeper than the headlines.
More generally, I’m curious to hear how you’d respond. Which option would make you happier? And which would you choose?