Income is tied to happiness and hope for the future

Money can't buy happiness, but try being hopeful and broke at the same time.

hands holding empty wallet
Credit: Perfectlab/Shutterstock
  • A new study finds money alone doesn't make people happy—they need some hope for the future too.
  • The study adds to the increasing pile of literature on the subject of how hope influences our wellbeing.
  • The findings, particularly on when this effect doesn't work, may have implications for future policy decisions.

While the adage that money can't buy happiness may be true, it has also been said that it can rent happiness for a long time. The scientific literature on the topic seems to bear this out, as studies show that more money tends to make people happier, but not always. How much people get out of the money can be extremely variable.

One surprisingly unstudied aspect of this is how our income and wellbeing relate to hope, specifically how people think the future will turn out for them. While it is known that people are more hopeful when things are going well for them and that how we perceive the future can dramatically impact our mood, no study has looked directly at the connection between income and hope.

Given that the connection between money and wellbeing is known to be positive but subject to various other factors, this missing data is particularly strange. Correcting for this, a new study published in the aptly named Journal of Happiness Studies surveyed hundreds of Americans to determine if hope can buy the things money can't.

A group of 515 American participants selected from the Prolific platform were initially involved in the study, however many of them failed to answer all relevant questions over the course of three years.

Participants were asked each year to fill out a questionnaire covering their income level, their life satisfaction, overall happiness, experiences of positive and negative emotions, and expectations on their future standard of living. They were contacted multiple times over three years to determine if changes in income impacted their levels of hope and life satisfaction. Their answers were then statistically analyzed for relationships.

To the surprise of no one, those making more money tended to report higher levels of life satisfaction. Also, as expected, higher levels of income tied to higher levels of hope. Increases in hope were strongly and directly linked to improved levels of satisfaction, and the ability of statistical models to predict how happy a participant was more than doubled by adding in their levels of hope.

However, the effect didn't exist for those making less than $1800 a month; increases in income below that point didn't increase hopefulness much. It is worth noting that this is around the poverty line for a multi-person household with children at the time of the study. The authors speculate that "this might be explained by the (lack of) capabilities that an income below $1800 can offer," and note that many of their test subjects would fit into the category of multi-person households at that level.

It seems money can buy happiness, or at least hope, but that it is more expensive than many people can afford.

There are a few caveats. While the study's demographics were similar to that of the United States overall, there were points of significant departure. Notably, the median test taker made less than the median American, was more likely to be unreligious, and rated their overall happiness slightly lower than other tests show Americans tend to do. While these differences may not prove substantial, the mentioned findings held up across all demographics involved in the survey; they may temper claims of how universal the results are.

The authors themselves admit that casualty cannot be inferred from these findings. It might be the case that a higher income causes people to be hopeful, which, in turn, improves their level of life satisfaction, or it could be that the causation runs the other way, with optimistic people making more money as a result of their already being hopeful.

In any case, hope does mediate the relationship between income and life satisfaction. While perhaps intuitive, this finding will advance the literature on the subject and has many practical applications.

This study provides further evidence that while having enough money to get by is necessary for happiness, it is not having piles of money alone that make people happy. It appears that it is what people can do (or at least believe they can do) as a result of having more money that actually increases their wellbeing. People looking to improve their outlook on life might do well to remember this.

The authors also suggest that there are policy implications in these findings. They conclude their study by pointing out:

"Our findings signal that policy aimed at increasing wellbeing through higher wages should take into account that the stability of income matters, and that only over a certain threshold income can offer enough possibilities to invest in a better future and as such create more hopeful and happy lives."

That is, since the hope, income, and satisfaction relation only kicked in above a certain income level, any policy geared towards improving people's lives will have to focus on getting them above that level to see lasting effects.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
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