Science Scene: money and happiness

Keun-Woo Lee

Achieving happiness could be more about a phone call to mom than a six-figure salary.

Students are constantly questioning which life path will lead to the most satisfaction. In a survey that asked millennials what their most important life goals were, about 80 percent selected “get rich,” whereas only 30 percent selected “to help people who need help.”

UT researchers are investigating which life factors affected happiness the most. Their findings challenge factors stereotypically linked to happiness, such as wealth and career.

There is, in fact, a positive association between money and happiness, but it is minute. Money is essential to happiness since it provides basic necessities. However, after a threshold yearly salary of $75,000, there is virtually no increase in happiness as income increases, according to the Journal of Psychological and Cognitive Sciences.

Rebecca North, lecturer in UT’s Department of Psychology, conducted a 10-year study examining how factors such as income and social support predict current happiness and changes in happiness.  

The quality of family relationships, more so than income, predicts happiness, according to the study. Also, during a 10-year span, an improvement in quality of relationships predicted an increase in happiness. 

“A lot of people think, ‘When I get that promotion or get another position, then I’m going to be much happier,’ but our research has shown that the change in income over time related to no change in happiness,” North said.

She said people’s happiness is also contingent on their attitude toward the human spectrum of emotions.

“There’s a lot of emerging research that shows it’s not just a ratio of positive to negative emotions,” she said. “It’s not just about feeling more positive emotions. There might actually be this element of accepting the full range of our experiences.”

Raj Raghunathan, marketing professor in the McCombs School of Business and creator of, also offered insight into how developing relationships is important for happiness.

“It’s not a waste of time to go out at a bar or hang out with your friends,” Raghunathan said. “It’s very important to keep in touch and not just on Facebook where it’s superficial, but to develop deeper ties.”

Raghunathan questions why his academically successful peers often seem miserable in his upcoming book, “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy?”

He said these successful people typically have two traits: an interest in being superior and controlling others.

“These very traits that might make you smart — go-getting, achievement-oriented, narcissistic, egotistic, with high self-esteem — and perhaps even help you achieve success, can often come in the way of your happiness,” Raghunathan said.

Raghunathan said while people should avoid these negative traits associated with traditional success, there are steps students can take to find happiness.

“Do something you really, really love to do. That’ll naturally lead you to become really good at it rather than seeking to be better than other people,” he said. “Seek to be of service to other people, and rather than trying to control other people and the environment, you try and control yourself — your internal environment.”