Study finds we choose money over happiness

September 19, 2011 By George Lowery

Given the choice, would you take a good-paying job with reasonable demands on your time or a high-paying job with longer work hours, permitting only six hours of sleep? Many people opt for the cash, even when they know their decision will compromise their happiness, according to a new Cornell study.

"You might think of as the ultimate goal that pursue, but actually, people think of goals like health, family happiness, social status and sense of purpose as sometimes competing with happiness," said Alex Rees-Jones, a Cornell doctoral student in the field of economics and co-author of a paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal . His co-authors include Cornell assistant professors of economics Dan Benjamin and Ori Heffetz, as well as University of Michigan professor Miles Kimball.

"We found that people make trade-offs between happiness and other things," Rees-Jones said. "For example, they explicitly told us in the free response sections that they would be happier one way, but their family would be happier if they took higher-paying options." They also said they were sometimes willing to choose a job that they thought would bring less happiness for themselves if they thought it would generate a greater sense of purpose, higher social status, a greater sense of control or a higher level of their family's happiness, Rees-Jones said.

The study asked more than 2,600 survey participants (including 633 Cornell students) to consider a variety of scenarios, including the choice between an $80,000 job with reasonable and seven and a half hours of sleep each night, or a $140,000 job with long work hours and time for only six hours of sleep.

Subjects were then asked which option would make them happier.

"On average, there are systematic differences between what people choose and what people think would make them happier," Rees-Jones said. "For example, people are more likely to choose the higher-income/lower-sleep job even when they don't think it will make them happier."

The authors "wanted to see if people were trying to be as happy as possible," Rees-Jones said.

After the survey, subjects were asked if they thought their responses were in error. "Only 7 percent told us that they thought they were making mistakes," Rees-Jones said. "When we asked them if they would regret any cases where they had a discrepancy between choice and well-being, 23 percent said yes. In both cases the vast majority said no, it wasn't a mistake, and no, they wouldn't regret it."

"Overall, this indicates that many are willing to pursue a course that sacrifices happiness in favor of other important goals," said Rees-Jones. "These respondents seem to indicate that maximizing happiness was not perceived to be in their own best interest. However, even if happiness is only one of many goals, it was still the strongest single predictor of choice in our data."

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4.3 / 5 (7) Sep 19, 2011
Money represents a survival tool. Survival has always been above the ideals of happiness. I'm so glad a study was made to point out the obvious.
not rated yet Sep 19, 2011
Subjects were then asked which option would make them happier.

So if someone responded that a well-paying job makes them happy, how are they not choosing happiness? The article doesn't make it very clear how happiness is defined in the study.

Also, who's "we"? 2600 Americans who've just experienced recession? Bias much?
5 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2011
For example, they explicitly told us in the free response sections that they would be happier one way, but their family would be happier if they took higher-paying options.

This is where it becomes tricky in sociological studies. The hapiness of people in our surroundings affect our own happiness (e.g. pursuing a less well-paying job that makes you happier while your wife nags about you not taking the better paid job can result in a net loss of happiness)

including the choice between an $80,000 job with reasonable work hours and seven and a half hours of sleep each night, or a $140,000 job with long work hours and time for only six hours of sleep.

Seven and a half hours sleep? Even that seems a little low. Where's the 'none of the above' option?
5 / 5 (4) Sep 19, 2011
Glad I don't corrolate my financial status with my mental well-being, I'd be miserable. My most valuable lessons came from losing everything I had, several times.

I couldn't express enough how much detaching from materialism and money-clutching has brought me peace of mind.

Don't let your possessions own you.

Look around you at your things and remember that most of what you buy, you buy based on how you think other people will see you, which usually is how people make a majority of their decisions.

It's delusional, and also why people have problems with self-identity. They think their possessions define who they are.

Etc, etc,
5 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2011
One problem here is that "happiness" does not amount to a single quantifiable context-free state. Some of your respondents might think "If I had no family responsibilities, I would prefer the job with more sleep because I can live on less money, but since I have a family, I would prefer the job with more money because my overall situation would be happier." They are not choosing "money over happiness" but rather "one type of happy situation over another". And another problem comes from trying to view happiness as an "either-or" situation. In fact, you might say they are choosing happiness in both cases, because as people with families, they recognize that they will benefit if their families are happier. They are, after all, PART of that family, so if the "family" is happier, so are they, by definition, right?
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2011
Some may also judge that temporary unhappiness is offset by longer term benefit. So, if they slave for 10 years now a save up, they will be better off - that sort of thinking.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2011
What Physmet said. As a university student getting ready for the 'real' world, I find the prospect of choosing your employment based on the amount of sleep you get to be horrifying. The current debt crisis has made me realize a very unsettling fact. Slavery will always be present in our society. Either the elite are enslaving negro's for cheap labor, or enslaving the working class over debt, we'll always be slaves. I guess the only difference is that were slaves with 'rights'. How depressing.

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