How wealth affects the relationship between meaning and happiness

Having a sense of meaning in life is one of the secrets to happiness. Recent research shows that rich people have more difficulty finding happiness in meaning than lower-income people.

Jordi Quoidbach

The gap between rich and poor is growing and global poverty is rising due to the triple thread posed by Covid, conflict and climate change. At the same time, research illustrates that people with lower incomes are twice as likely to experience depression and that a drop in household income increases the risk of mood disorders. 

This paints a bleak picture for people living in poverty or on low incomes. On the face of the facts, a lack of money leads to low mood, happiness is in short supply and life has little meaning above the basic needs of survival. 

However, research from Esade’s Jordi Quoidbach, Rhia Catapano (University of Toronto), Cassie Mogilner (University of California) and Jennifer L. Aaker (Stanford Graduate School of Business) suggests this may not be the case. 

The research, published by the American Psychological Association, provides valuable insight into the impact of financial resources on wellbeing, specifically regarding the relationship between meaning and happiness. 

The value of meaning 

What brings meaning to life? The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” But there’s a difference between merely tolerating and actively enjoying one’s existence

Happiness is commonly defined as feeling more positive than negative and being satisfied with life. Meaning, on the other hand, is associated with viewing life as having sense, importance and direction.

Happiness is defined as feeling more positive than negative, while meaning is associated with having sense and direction in life

Some experiences can bring meaning but not happiness and vice versa. What factors influence the extent of each and what brings them together? Does being in a better financial position enhance the relationship? 

According to the research from Quoidbach and co-authors, the answer to the latter is no. Their study of 500,000 people in 123 countries has revealed that the greater the wealth, the lower the link between meaning and happiness

The impact of income and status on wellbeing  

The researchers analyzed three large-scale data sets from the United States, France, and worldwide. The three studies examined the strength of the relationship between meaning and happiness based on income level and socioeconomic status. 

In the first study, using the Gallup US Daily Data (Well-Being Track), happiness was gauged using three measures: whether respondents smiled or laughed a lot yesterday; whether they experienced enjoyment during a lot of yesterday; and whether they experienced a lot of happiness yesterday. 

Meaning was measured by the extent to which individuals like what they do each day and whether they’re motivated to achieve their goals, using data from the Gallup World Poll’s Purpose Index. Finally, Gallup’s official US Daily Data income measure was used to assess income level. 

Wealthy individuals have greater access to other external sources of happiness

The results of this first US-focused study revealed that the correlation between meaning and happiness decreased as income increased. In other words, meaning has more impact on happiness for those on low incomes than it does for high earners. 

According to the authors, "this effect is attributable to more affluent individuals having greater access to other external sources of happiness, which allows them to rely less on the internally constructed sense of meaning to enjoy greater happiness.” 

The global view 

Cultural differences can have a significant impact on trends, so the researchers turned to Gallup’s World Poll data, collected from 123 countries between 2005 and 2015, to assess global patterns. 

Happiness was assessed using the same criteria in study one, adjusted and validated for local differences. Meaning was assessed with a yes or no response to the question, “Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?” 

Income was analyzed by Gallup’s global income brackets, converted for consistency using the World Bank’s individual consumption purchasing power parity.

This pattern is not specific to a single culture or region 

Again, individuals with lower incomes showed a higher level of correlation between meaning and happiness than those in the highest income brackets. In 10 of the 11 regions assessed in study two, those with higher incomes had a weaker relationship between happiness and meaning.  

These global results suggest the pattern is not specific to a single culture or region

Societal influence 

An individual’s perception of their financial situation can be influenced by their social standing and emotional influences. To measure the impact of this societal influence on the strength of the relationship between meaning and happiness, the researchers carried out a third study of French participants who were asked to rate their socioeconomic status using the MacArthur scale

In addition to questions about their levels of happiness, meaning and purpose, participants were asked where they believed they stood on a “social ladder,” with rung nine being the people with the best education, jobs and most money, and rung one being the least educated with the worst or no job. 

The third study replicated the findings of studies one and two: the relationship between happiness and meaning was stronger for those who considered themselves lower down the social ladder

Money can’t buy meaning 

Why do people with a higher net worth struggle to equate meaning with happiness? Does their pursuit of wealth exclude activities that could bring greater meaning to their life? This theory would be consistent with research showing that the pursuit of material possessions damages wellbeing.  

Or does their financial affluence allow them to indulge in activities with less meaning, while those with low incomes but strong social networks derive greater meaning from their own activities thanks to the support they receive in carrying them out? In countries with lower incomes, seeking support is encouraged as a treatment for mental health issues; could the resulting practical and emotional help encourage people to view their lives in a more positive light? 

The results from Quoidbach et al don’t provide definitive answers—but they do provide exciting questions for follow-up research.  

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