Wellbeing: Breaking news – money does buy happiness*


The researchers say the situational factors most likely to adversely affect a person’s wellbeing equilibrium are insufficient levels of three key resources: money, connection with others, and sense of purpose.

A nationwide average bundles together those people whose wellbeing is reduced by such deficits with a greater number of people who are doing well.

Factors most likely to adversely affect a person’s wellbeing equilibrium are insufficient levels of three key resources: enough money, connection with others, and sense of purpose.Credit:Joe Armao

So nothing in this finding denies that many people did it tough during the pandemic, whether monetarily or in their physical or mental health. It’s just that more of us stayed happy enough.

Remember, too, that the media almost always tells us about people with problems, not those doing OK. Similarly, medicos rightly focus on the unwell, not the well. But if you’re not careful, you can get an exaggerated impression of the world’s problems.

And when you look further than the average, you do see the pandemic making its presence felt. The index always shows people living alone, those in share houses and single parents having the least satisfaction with their lot.

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But get this: those living alone and single parents enjoyed a big increase in perceived wellbeing. Why? Keep reading.

When the survey divides people according to their work status – unemployed, home duties, study, employed or retired – it always finds the unemployed far less satisfied than everyone else.

In the first year of the pandemic, however, the satisfaction of the unemployed leapt by 9 percentage points. Why? Maybe because the composition of the unemployed had changed a lot. Or maybe because, with many more people becoming unemployed, the stigma of being without a job was reduced.

But a much more obvious explanation is that, early in the pandemic, the rate of the JobSeeker unemployment benefit was temporarily doubled. Suddenly, it went from being below the poverty line to well above it. And wellbeing went up.

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Trouble is, when the payment was cut back heavily in the second year, the satisfaction of the unemployed fell below what it was in the first place.

This supports a finding of “behavioural” economics: people suffer from “loss aversion” – we feel losses more deeply than we enjoy gains of the same size.

And it’s borne out by the survey’s finding that the satisfaction of all those people whose household income had fallen was more than 3 percentage points lower than that of those whose income was unchanged.

But. The satisfaction of those people whose income had risen was no higher than that of those whose income didn’t change.

The survey shows that people on the lowest incomes were much less satisfied than those on the next rung up. But it also confirms economists’ belief in “marginal diminishing returns”. The higher incomes rise, the smaller the increase in people’s satisfaction with their lives.

So, unless you’re really poor, don’t kid yourself that more money will make you a lot happier.

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