The study used data from the General Social Survey, one of the longest-running nationally representative surveys of U.S. adults, with 44,198 participants between 1972 and 2016.
It found a growing class divide in happiness, with the happiness of whites with no college education steadily declining since 1972, while the happiness of whites with college education stayed steady.
For African Americans, the results were different but still reflected a rising money-happiness correlation: Happiness levels of blacks with no college education has stayed steady since 1972, while the happiness of blacks with college education has increased. For both races, the happiness gap by education has grown.
The findings challenge the “Money can’t buy happiness” adage, which had been supported by other studies, including a widely cited 2010 Princeton University report showing that at levels higher than $75,000, a rise in income is not associated with greater happiness.
The GSS did not ask exactly the same question as that used by the Princeton study, which asked participants how they had felt the previous day and whether they were living the best possible life for themselves.
The GSS asked, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” The new study divided respondents into quintiles and deciles on the basis of income and looked at how they answered that question over several decades.
Adults who were in the top decile of inflation-adjusted household income ($108,410 and higher) were 5 percent more likely to say they were “very happy” than people in the ninth decile.
The new study found no evidence that happiness tapers off after a certain income point, though it did not study incomes within the top decile to see if the happiness-income correlation continued to rise for those earning over $108,410.
“The link [between income and happiness] is stronger now than in previous decades,” Jean Twenge, the paper’s lead author, told The Washington Post, adding that the decrease in happiness among lower-income people may be a result of rising inequality, increasing real estate values and decreased ability to pay for education.
“What you tell your kids when you have income inequality is, ‘You either make it or you don’t, so you’d better make it,’ ” Twenge said.