Findings Of The World’s Most Extensive Happiness Study About Money

For generations, society has debated whether or not money brings happiness. Now, a new book has some answers backed up by data.

According to Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, authors of “The Good Life,” the simple answer is: No, money cannot buy happiness. According to the findings of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the world’s longest happiness study.

The more complicated answer is that money is obviously an important part of our daily lives, and up to a certain income level ($75,000 in a well-known study), it will affect our satisfaction in terms of meeting basic needs and providing for our families.

However, there is no correlation beyond that. For most financial experts, the point is to view money as a means to an end, a means to shape a meaningful existence.

Since 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has followed people – now spanning three generations – to determine what factors contribute to a happy life and which do not.

“Money can’t buy us happiness, but it’s a tool that can give us security and safety and a sense of control over lives,” says Schulz, who is also a psychology professor at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College. “At the end of the day, life is really about our connections with others. It’s our relationships that keep us happy.”

Here’s what the world’s longest happiness study can teach us about our lives, careers, and, yes, money:

Career Achievement Does Not Ensure Happiness

As a society, we have a tendency to believe that being a high achiever will solve all of our problems.

Not so.

According to Schulz, the Harvard study found that participants with “more prestigious jobs and more money” were not happier in their lives.

The idea that chasing a money-oriented achievement, such as a big promotion or a dollar figure in your 401(k), will make you happy pushes happiness into the future and always out of reach.

“The problem with that approach,” says Schulz, “is that life passes you by.”

Friendships at work should be treasured.

Yes, one of the main reasons for going to work is to get paid. But don’t dismiss all of your little daily interactions with the people around you at work, because they turn out to be very important.

“A large part of our waking lives is spent at work, and if you believe that relationships make for a good life, then you need to think about your connections at work,” Schulz says. “Those relationships are important to your well-being, because you spend such a large amount of time with them.”

Prepare for Life After Retirement Now

Retirement poses a significant risk to many people’s happiness and sense of self-worth: because so many people are so identified with their jobs and titles, retirement can strip all of that away and leave them feeling completely lost.

That is why mid-career professionals should consider shifting gears right now. Create a life framework with meaning and purpose, as well as networks outside of the office. This could include trying new things, repairing old friendships, or volunteering for favorite causes.

“People who have done best in retirement are those who lean into it, and think about their social connections, and rebuild their networks outside of work,” Schulz adds.

Experiences are more important than things.

According to the study’s findings, accumulating more stuff will not move the happiness meter. Instead, consider your experiences.

“Rather than buying a bigger house or a nicer car, if you use your money to share experiences with others, that money will get you a better return on happiness,” Schulz says.

That could be a vacation or a nice dinner with your family.

“Those are the kinds of activities that allow us to connect,” he adds.

Conduct Your Own Mini-Harvard Study

The Harvard Study works by periodically checking in with participants – 724 original participants, some of whom are still alive, and 1,300 descendants – for reflection and self-evaluation.

Are they content? Are they exactly where they want to be? Are there any areas where they fall short?

There’s no reason why the rest of us can’t follow suit, with regular check-ins. That way, if your career, friendships, and finances aren’t all working together to give you a life with meaning and purpose, you can change course.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Schulz says. “There are gains to be made by doing some self-examination, and figuring out whether you are doing what’s really important to you.”

(Adapted from


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