Lower Income Translates to Fewer Happy Experiences—Here is How We Can Fix It
Can money actually buy happiness? Research shows that having more money makes people evaluate their lives more favorably (what researchers call “life satisfaction”). Surprising as it may seem, whether money leads to greater life satisfaction because it makes people happier remains an open question. We sought to uncover a piece of this puzzle by exploring how the lifestyle that higher income affords influences the kind of happiness people experience, and in turn, their life satisfaction.
To start, we distinguished between two different ways that happiness can be experienced: the frequency of happiness and the intensity of happiness. For example, while both going for a run and attending a concert (in pre-COVID times) make one of us (Jon) happy, the latter makes him much more intensely happy than the former. In any given month, however, Jon goes on more runs than he goes to concerts, making running a source of more frequent happiness.
It turns out this distinction is important because it helps us disentangle how money affects happiness. In our studies, which included a diary study capturing people’s happiness experiences over a 30-day time frame, we found that while higher income is reliably related to greater frequency of happiness, it is not related to the intensity of happiness. That is, our studies showed that more money translated into a greater number of instances in which our research participants experienced happiness, but not how happy they felt during each happy instance. This relationship between income and happiness frequency partially explained why people who have more money are more satisfied with their lives.
Why might higher income yield a higher frequency of happy instances? One way to understand these findings is to evaluate the ways higher income affects the way people spend their leisure time. Interestingly, past research has found that income does not seem to determine how much leisure time people have. Our work suggests that income underlies how people spend their free time. Although there are many ways one can spend their free time, most leisure activities can be separated into one of two types: active leisure time activities such as hobbies, volunteering, or exercising, and passive leisure time activities such as watching TV or just relaxing. Both types can be important and enriching (we both enjoy binge-watching on Netflix from time to time). However, we find that higher-income individuals are more likely to engage in active leisure time activities compared to lower-income individuals. These differences in how higher- and lower-income people spend their time in part accounted for the different levels of happiness frequencies we find across the income spectrum.
You might ask the obvious question: What life circumstances cause people to engage in more active leisure activities? These could be access to opportunities (for example, some hobbies require specialized and costly facilities), schedule predictability (knowing that you have the ability to commit to planned activities), and physical or mental energy (not being too exhausted for active leisure), among others. Lower incomes constrain individuals on all of these because access requires financial resources, lower-paying jobs are often less predictable, and lower incomes and financial worries drain one’s energy. It’s probably not that lower-income individuals don’t want to spend their time engaging in leisure activities that are more active—it’s that their circumstances limit their ability to do so.
In this way, an inequality of income produces an inequality of leisure time activities, which in turn produces an inequality of happiness frequency. It’s important to emphasize, however, that this string of relationships is a feature of our society that could be remedied if we take certain steps. Greater investments into community centers could expand access to active leisure activities for low-income members of our society (though note that one way this has been funded, the Community Development Block Grant, has been the subject of budget cuts over the past four years). Stronger labor protection laws could allow workers more control over their schedules (such as the Schedules That Work Act, which requires companies to pay workers for scheduling changes made with fewer than 14 days’ notice). Finally, stronger and more reliable financial assistance (such as through guaranteed income programs) could help provide lower-income individuals with more peace of mind that allows them to divert their energies toward both active and passive leisure activities. These are just a few of many avenues that could promote a society in which income inequality does not dictate which members of society are happy.
Greater access to financial resources—and all that comes with it—allows people to engage in leisure activities that are more active, which in turn makes them happy with greater frequency. This, in part, accounts for why money relates to satisfaction with life. This relationship is not inevitable, even if it follows from the status quo. It is in fact a choice in how our society is structured. Inequalities of income do not have to lead to inequality of happiness—if we take the necessary steps to rectify it.
For Further Reading
Jachimowicz, J. M., Mo, R., Greenberg, A. E., Jeronimus, B., & Whillans, A. V. (2020). Income More Reliably Predicts Frequent Than Intense Happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550620972548
Giurge, L. M., Whillans, A. V., & West, C. (2020). Why time poverty matters for individuals, organisations and nations. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(10), 993-1003. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0920-z
Jon M. Jachimowicz is an Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at the Harvard Business School. Twitter: @jonj // Web: www.jonmjachimowicz.com
Adam Eric Greenberg is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Bocconi University. Web: www.adamericgreenberg.com