Personal Finance: The pursuit of happiness

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Michelle Singletary
Thursday, July 8, 2010; 8:48 AM

Are you happy?

When I ask that question, what aspects of your life immediately leap to mind? Do you think of your significant other, smile, and nod yes, you're happy? Do you measure it by how often you've laughed or felt at peace?

Or did you do a quick accounting of your financial well-being as a way to gauge your contentedness?

Can money buy happiness?

We say it can't because, well, that's what we are supposed to say. But turns out a recent Gallup World survey found people do think money can buy happiness.

As the Post's Rob Stein reports, "Pulling in the big bucks makes people more likely to say they are happy with their lives overall -- whether they are young or old, male or female, or living in cities or remote villages, the survey of more than 136,000 people in 132 countries found."

Okay, actually money can only buy one component of happiness, according to the poll.

"'Yes, money makes you happy -- we see the effect of income on life satisfaction is very strong and virtually ubiquitous and universal around the world,' said Ed Diener, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Illinois who led the study. 'But it makes you more satisfied than it makes you feel good. Positive feelings are less affected by money and more affected by the things people are doing day to day.'"

Stein reports that people may initially define their happiness by income because they are comparing themselves to the ubiquitous Joneses--you know, the people who always seem to be living better than you with their nice house, luxury car and trendy clothes. But here's something to consider: Many of the people you envy for their outward appearance of wealth are probably just as jammed up with debt as you are - or a paycheck away from being broke.

The findings from the poll were published in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The survey involved detailed questioning in 2005 and 2006 of 136,839 residents age 15 and older.

The study also shows how the United States compared with several countries on the happiness scale.

So have you measured your happiness by how much money you have, and if so, how's that working for you? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com and put "Can Money Buy You Happiness?" in the subject line.


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