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Higher incomes tied to better emotional states — but there’s a catch

A study of 1.6 million people ties high incomes with more positive emotions and fewer negative ones, but only towards the self.
Credit: Osarugue Igbinoba / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • A review of data from 1.6 million people shows that higher incomes relate to more positive feelings about the self.
  • Feelings towards others were not affected by higher incomes.
  • The findings have implications for those hoping to improve society by raising incomes alone.

It has often said that money cannot buy happiness, though it is also thought that the wealthy enjoy their miseries in relative comfort. While it is easy to measure the external benefits of increased wealth, the studies on how more money affects people at a personal level are limited and show mixed results. While many of them show that people think their lives are improved after becoming better off financially, attempts to find out if they are actually happier have provided few answers.

Looking to correct for that problem, an international team of researchers reviewed studies involving 1.6 million people and found that not only does income positively relate to some positive emotions, but that the effect is similar all over the world.

This study, led by Dr. Eddie Tong of the National University of Singapore, looked at data from 162 countries. Its findings, published in the journal Emotion, provide robust evidence for the effect of higher incomes on positive and negative emotions towards the self that mesh well with existing data on how changes in income make people feel about their lives overall.

Overall, the evidence shows that higher incomes are associated with more pride, confidence, and determination, and fewer instances of negative self-regarding emotions, such as sadness, fear, shame, and anxiety. Previous studies, which have tended to avoid asking about specific feelings, also found that increased income was positively correlated with overall life satisfaction by roughly the same amount.

This review also demonstrated that these effects are not just short-term ones. One study found that higher income levels predicted higher levels of self-regard 10 years after initial surveys.

The researchers determined that at least part of this effect was mediated by an increased sense of control over their lives that people felt as the earned more money. This is in line with previous studies, which have also tied a sense of control over life events to higher incomes, improved mental health, and happiness.

However, while this is good for how somebody might feel about themselves after a raise or about their life in general, the effects don’t seem to apply to another crucial area of human life — how you feel towards others.

While people consistently reported increasingly positive self-regarding emotions as their incomes rose, their stances towards other people didn’t change much.

Other-regarding emotions, which can refer to specific people, groups of people, or humankind in general, can include familiar feelings like gratitude, love, compassion, or anger. To the authors’ surprise, the data they reviewed showed little to no relationship between increasing incomes and positive or negative other-regarding emotions. As Dr. Tong explained:

“Having more money doesn’t necessarily make a person more compassionate and grateful, and greater wealth may not contribute to building a more caring and tolerant society.”

While some of the studies reviewed suggested a positive relationship between income and positive other-regarding emotions, the mixed results mean that no association can be confirmed.

Dr. Tong summarized the findings’ implications for policymakers:

“Policies aimed at raising the income of the average person and boosting the economy may contribute to emotional well-being for individuals. However, it may not necessarily contribute to emotional experiences that are important for communal harmony.”

On a more personal level, these findings remind us that money isn’t everything but that it is something. Dr. Tong remarked:

“The effects of income on our emotional well-being should not be underestimated. Having more money can inspire confidence and determination while earning less is associated with gloom and anxiety.”

The parts of the study focusing on self-control as a mediator also tied to other studies suggesting that autonomy is good for people.

A recent study on the matriarchal culture of the Mosuo people shows that the women living in villages where they weld power over their own lives are healthier than other Mosuo women living in patriarchal villages. While the study didn’t suggest that no health issues existed in these societies, it did note improvements in comparison to others.

Like any other study, this one was not perfect, and there are reasons you should take these findings with a little salt.

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This study was correlational and cannot prove causation. It could be the case that some unknown factor connects higher incomes with these positive emotions, for example. Further studies will be needed to demonstrate causation. Additionally, while the effect was noteworthy and consistent in countries on every continent and of all economic development levels, the effect was not massive. The findings do not suggest that higher income levels are a silver bullet effective against all negative self-regard.

Even with those caveats, this study’s findings are an important improvement on the previous literature on this subject. While the connection between income and self-regard is limited, it is significant enough to suggest that millions of people’s emotional states can be improved by focusing on their finances, even if that won’t be enough to build a caring society for them to live in.

Of course, at that point, they might be well off and self-assured enough not to mind as much, but that’s another problem.


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