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Can’t buy me meaning? Money cuts a quicker path to happiness

In the pursuit of happiness, money probably trumps meaning.
Credit: Dmitry Lobanov / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Researchers and philosophers identify two types of psychological wellbeing, which can be summarized as the purposeful and the pleasurable.
  • Previous research has already established that, on average, wealthy people experience happier, more meaningful lives. A new study asks a more nuanced question: Does meaning predict happiness, regardless of wealth?
  • The results suggest that meaning is less important to happiness for wealthy people. More importantly, meaning may be extra important for people without much money.

The search for meaning is woven tightly into the pursuit of a life well lived. Far from a philosophical abstraction, meaning often predicts life satisfaction and happiness. It is considered even more important than prestige, pleasure, or money

However, let’s be frank: People do also love money. But exactly how much does money matter? Can having it make meaning matter less? Dr. Rhia Catapano and colleagues set out to answer this question.

Defining meaning and happiness

Researchers and philosophers differentiate between two types of psychological wellbeing: eudaimonic (the meaningful, purposeful, or significant) and hedonic (the pleasurable or enjoyable). The latter aligns with what most people term “happiness.” 

To understand the distinction, imagine working hard on an important life goal. This might feel meaningful, but unpleasant. On the other hand, taking heroin might feel meaningless, but enjoyable.

Meaning and happiness are rarely totally separate. In general, meaningful experiences make people feel happy, and vice versa. For example, spending time with friends, buying gifts for others, and celebrating life milestones can be both meaningful and enjoyable. 

Finding meaning in life is therefore usually a good way to boost happiness.

How money fits in

To the possible disappointment of anyone hoping to indulge in some schadenfreude, prior research establishes that, on average, wealthy people experience happier and more meaningful lives than their lower-income counterparts. This is probably because money can buy both meaning and happiness, so long as you spend it in the right way — for instance, by purchasing experiences, time with loved ones, or gifts for others. 

Catapano and her team set out to answer a more nuanced question: How does money affect the relationship between meaning and happiness? Does meaning predict happiness, regardless of wealth? Or does money change things?

On one hand, meaning might be especially important for wealthy people’s happiness, since all of their basic needs are met and they have the resources to pursue grand, meaningful experiences. On the other hand, meaning may be less important, because it is easier for the wealthy to pursue happiness in other ways, like fancy trips, fun cars, and big parties.

Study 1: The Americans

To answer the question, the research team started by analyzing Gallup surveys from nearly 350,000 adults across the United States.

They measured happiness by averaging three yes/no questions: whether yesterday they smiled or laughed a lot, experienced enjoyment during much of the day, and experienced a lot of happiness.  Researchers measured meaning by averaging two criteria that assess one’s sense of life purpose: how much respondents like what they do each day, and how much they are motivated to achieve their goals. Wealth was measured by monthly income.

In short, the results show that the wealthier someone is, the less meaning affects their happiness levels. Importantly, this does not mean that high-income people reported less overall meaning or happiness — their levels were about as high, or even higher, than those of lower-income participants. But the study found that meaning was less important to their happiness. 

(Graph from Catapano et al., 2022, Figure 1. Bars represent 99% confidence intervals.)

Study 2: The world

Study 1 only looked at Americans, who are often psychologically unusual compared to people from other cultures. As Catapano told BigThink, “It’s possible that Americans are materialistic and idiosyncratic. We wanted to know whether this was something more fundamentally human.”

So, study 2 assessed whether the finding applied to the rest of the world, too.

This time the researchers used the Gallup World Poll, which is an extensively validated survey administered in local languages across 123 countries. A different question was used to measure meaning: “Do you feel your life has an important purpose or meaning?”  

Once again, the correlation between meaning and happiness became smaller as wealth increased.

This pattern held in 10 out of 11 world regions, including Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. (East Asia was the only region where wealthy people reported a slightly stronger relationship between meaning and happiness, but these results were not statistically significant.)

Study 3: Different questions

Because the first two studies used existing Gallup survey data, the researchers had no control over the questions used to assess meaning, happiness, and wealth. So, the researchers carried out a third study.

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Catapano and her team recruited participants through a popular French TV program and asked them well-validated, direct questions. Participants rated the extent to which they lead a purposeful and meaningful life and the extent to which they consider themselves a happy person. For wealth status, participants rated their socioeconomic status using the MacArthur social ladder, which asks participants where they believe they stand compared to others considering their money, education, and jobs.  

Once again, the higher someone reported being on the socio-economic ladder, the less meaning predicted their happiness. 

Confounding factors

One of the downsides of large survey studies, of course, is that the researchers cannot control every relevant factor that could affect the results. In particular, age and religiosity are correlated with meaning and income, making them potential confounding factors. Additionally, income might affect how much meaning and happiness vary — in other words, how much their scores can be expected to spread out. This can affect statistical analyses.  

However, even when controlling for these variables, meaning loses power to predict happiness as wealth increases. This held true across all three studies. In fact, in study 1, the researchers ran model specifications that combined different ways of measuring meaning, happiness, and income. They found that meaning predicted happiness less for wealthier people in 599 of 600 specifications.

What this does and does not mean

In short, data from more than 500,000 people suggest that meaning is less important to happiness for wealthy people. This does not mean that wealthy people are struggling to find meaning: Both their meaning and happiness levels are on par with, or even higher than, their lower-income counterparts.  

Perhaps wealthy people simply do not need meaning to be happy. Their resources minimize the stress of meeting daily needs like paying bills or affording food. They can also afford the kinds of purchases that boost happiness, like fun experiences and enjoyable hobbies.

The more important takeaway is that meaning may be extra important for people without much money. Compared to their wealthier counterparts, poor people suffer high rates of depression and other mental health problems. Incorporating meaning-making into one’s life may be a free way to improve happiness. 

Regardless of wealth, Catapano suggests that everyone “recognize sources of meaning and invest in them — family, social relationships, religion are some key sources. It’s easy to neglect when you have so many ways to spend your money and time. Remember some of the free stuff.”

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