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In other news… Money Only Buys So Much Happiness, and Praising Others Will Raise Your Self-Esteem

September 15, 2010

I just discovered a cool site called Big Questions Online. It reports on issues that reside where “science, religion, markets and morals” intersect. There are a few interesting posts I came across there, including this one about how money can buy happiness, but only to a point:

Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, two Princeton University researchers, analyzed the day-to-day mood of more than 450,000 Americans and found that happiness increases with income—but only up to about $75,000.

“Beyond $75,000 in the contemporary United States, however,” the researchers say, “higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress, although higher income continues to improve individuals’ life evaluations.” So richer people think their lives are better overall—another important measure—but their emotional well-being is no higher. (To understand the difference, think of it this way: Your emotional well-being is higher on the weekends, but your life evaluation isn’t; college graduates have higher life evaluation, but not emotional well-being.)

What about those who make less than $75,00o? Well, their happiness goes down as their income does, and sadness and stress go up—presumably because having a low income “exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone,” the researchers write.

I was also intrigued by this post by psychology researcher Jenny Cole, explaining why praising other people seems to raise one’s own self-esteem:

One possibility is linked to the finding in psychology that self-esteem increases when we participate in helping behavior. When we gossip, we can exert some control over how others see the person we talk about. Praising others may therefore make us feel like a “Good Samaritan,” which may make us feel better about ourselves.

What is interesting in our study is that participants were instructed to do this and had never seen the person they were asked to describe. It would be really fascinating to see what happens when we ask them to gossip about someone they know and to choose whether to say something positive or something negative. Firstly, the positive effects of helping on well-being are more marked when the behavior is voluntary, as demonstrated by a recent study by psychologists Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan. However, sharing information about someone you know without their knowledge may not have such a positive effect on well-being. We may actually feel bad because of feelings that we are violating the privacy of the person we are talking about.

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