Money Buys Happiness, and Other Quick Lessons about Life Satisfaction in America

A blog about business and economics.
June 13 2014 5:00 PM

Money Buys Happiness, and Other Brief Lessons About Life Satisfaction in America

Yes, you can buy it.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development is out with its big survey on the U.S. economy—a delightful compendium of everything from our energy use to how our minimum wage stacks up globally to how our economic recovery is faring compared to Europe’s (in a word, better). For the moment, though, and because it's Friday afternoon, I wanted to break out a little series of graphs about happiness.

So three lessons.

Lesson 1: Compared with other countries, we’re rich, overworked, and lonely, but decently satisfied anyway.


This chart tracks how the U.S. compares with 34 other developed (or fairly developed) countries on measures of well-being. Try to ignore the weird axis labeling, which I suspect might just be an error. We rank high on material things like housing and income. We’re near the bottom on work-life balance and community. (Granted, I imagine factoring in inequality would change this graph quite a bit.) When it comes to life satisfaction overall, we’re somewhere in the middle. Short version: "My Girls" by Animal Collective might be the least American song ever written.

Lesson 2: Our overall happiness hasn’t changed much over time.

Some might argue that it’s a fool’s errand to try capturing the emotional mood of a country in a single index. But that won't stop the OECD from trying. Overall, our contentedness hasn’t budged much since the 1970s, according to this graph.


Lesson 3: Money does buy happiness.

It turns out that making more than $500,000 a year is pretty sweet. Or at least, earning that much compels you to tell a pollster that everything in life is dandy. The graph below, showing that everybody earning half a million or more is "very happy," is based on a Gallup poll from 2007, the results of which reappeared in a 2013 paper by Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson. Studies have suggested that after a certain income, money yields diminishing returns on happiness. But Wolfers and Stevenson say that’s not really the case. Without controlling for other factors such as the state of your marriage or health—which, by the way, also correlate strongly with income—the relationship between your bank account and your self-reported peace of mind seems pretty clear.

Jordan Weissmann is Slate's senior business and economics correspondent.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
The Vault
Sept. 22 2014 9:04 AM When Frank Sinatra Thanked George Bush For Trying to Outlaw Flag-Burning
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.