The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 1% are much more satisfied with their lives than everyone else, survey finds

An NPR/Harvard poll shows that, among the rich, 97 percent say they’re living the ‘American Dream.’


Adults in the top 1 percent of U.S. household income — those who earn at least $500,000 a year — have “dramatically different life experiences” than everyone else, according to a unique new survey from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The findings show a “near-universal life satisfaction” for the wealthiest Americans as they accumulate more and more of the country’s riches. Fully 90 percent of the 1 percent say they are “completely” or “very” satisfied with their lives in general, compared with two-thirds of middle-income households (defined as those earning $35,000 to $99,000 a year) and 44 percent of low-income households (those in the $35,000 a year or less bracket).

Perhaps most remarkably, the share of 1 percenters expressing “dissatisfaction” with their lives is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

Because the top 1 percent is such a tiny subset of the population, public opinion surveys aren’t usually capable of delving into their views. A typical survey with 1,000 respondents would be expected to include 10 members of the top 1 percent. The NPR/RWJF/Harvard survey, by contrast, oversampled at the top end of the income spectrum to include 250 respondents in the top 1 percent.

There’s robust economics literature on the relationship between money and happiness. At the risk of oversimplification, studies have found a strong correlation up to the level of about $75,000 in annual earnings. Beyond that, the returns to more money are smaller but still apparent.

Researchers, however, tend to distinguish between two forms of well-being measurements: There’s “happiness,” which is an in-the-moment emotional state; and “life satisfaction,” which is an assessment of how things are going in the long term. These qualities are highly correlated but can be at odds: Having children, for instance, can bring parents a sense of overall life fulfillment along with a lot of minute-to-minute aggravation and unhappiness.

The new survey asks respondents about life satisfaction, rather than in-the-moment happiness. And though studies have shown there’s a happiness “satiation point” — the mark beyond which more money doesn’t have much impact on your day-to-day mood — the new survey’s first-of-its kind data on the 1 percent shows that life satisfaction continues to rise with income through at least the $500,000-a-year threshold.

The rich might not be any happier than the rest of us on a day-to-day basis, in other words, but they are an awful lot more self-satisfied. Among the 1 percent, for instance, 97 percent say that they’ve already obtained the “American Dream” — the definition of which was left to the respondent — or are actively working toward it. Among low-income adults, by contrast, 4 in 10 say the American Dream is completely out of reach.

The rich also have little practical experience with the day-to-day financial concerns of most Americans. Among low-income households, for instance, nearly 40 percent said they had trouble paying their medical bills in the past several years and 30 percent reported having difficulty paying for food. Among the top 1 percent, those shares were 5 percent and zero, respectively.

The survey also illustrates how the rich are different when it comes to questions of policy. More than half of the top 1 percent, for instance, say it should not be a priority for federal lawmakers to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor. Conversely, more than two-thirds of low income Americans say reducing inequality should be a federal priority.

Although 59 percent of low-income Americans say the wealthy should pay more taxes, just over a third of the top 1 percent say the same.