Why Money Can't Buy Happiness: Feeling Respected Matters More

Although theories suggest high-income individuals are generally happier, new research finds that feeling valued may matter more for well-being.

The Doctor Will See You Now
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Aretha had it right: Respect really matters. According to a new study, feeling one is respected and admired ranks over having money when it comes to what makes people feel a greater sense of happiness and well-being.

The researchers were interested in understanding why people with higher socioeconomic status (SES), who presumably had greater wealth or income and education, were not appreciably happier than those of lower SES. "Yet at the same time, many theories suggest that higher status should boost happiness," said lead researcher Cameron Anderson, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, in a press release. "So if higher socioeconomic status doesn't equate with a greater sense of well-being, then what does?"

Even for MBAs in the workforce, feeling respected and valued had more to do with their happiness than how much money they made.

Anderson and his colleagues decided to look at the effect of a person's sense of their position on the social ladder. How does the level of respect and admiration we receive from friends and neighbors, co-workers and teammates -- the people we see and interact with face-to-face every day -- affect our happiness? "Having high standing in your local ladder leads to receiving more respect, having more influence, and being more integrated into the group's social fabric," Anderson said.

In a series of four experiments, the group first surveyed 80 college students from 12 groups on campus. The amount of respect the students received from their peers, called their sociometric status, was calculated based on a combination of peer ratings, self-reports, and looking at the number of leadership positions the student held in his or her group. They asked each student to report their total household income and answer questions designed to determine their social well-being.

The researchers found that sociometric status, but not socioeconomic status, predicted students' social well-being scores.

Three subsequent studies deepened the findings. The second study was of a larger and more diverse group of participants; in the third they found evidence that the relationship between sociometric status and well-being could actually be manipulated in an experimental setting. Finally, in a fourth study, of graduate students in business school, the researchers tested their hypothesis in the real world.

Looking at MBA students pre- and post-graduation, they found that students' sociometric status after graduation predicted social well-being more strongly than did their post-graduation socioeconomic status. In other words, even for MBAs in the workforce, feeling respected and valued had more to do with their happiness than how much money they made.

"One of the reasons why money doesn't buy happiness is that people quickly adapt to the new level of income or wealth. Lottery winners, for example, are initially happy but then return to their original level of happiness quickly," said Anderson. "It's possible that being respected, having influence, and being socially integrated just never gets old."

The studies are described in an article published in Psychological Science.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Leslie Carr is the editor-in-chief at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow. She was formerly an editor at Random House, HarperCollins, and Prentice Hall Publishers.

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