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Just this past weekend, I was playing the classic game of “Would You Rather” with a few close friends when an ever-popular question was proposed: would you rather have a low-paying job that you love or a high-paying job that you hate? Some of us declared our answers immediately, while others needed some additional time to think, to weigh the pros and the cons.

In the end, the answers were pretty evenly split—mine among those who knew the first choice was the right choice.

I couldn’t imagine doing a job that I hate, day-in and day-out… regardless of how much money it earned me. It took me a millisecond to conclude that I’d be miserable. Now, consider a simpler question: would you rather have a low-paying or high-paying job? This question doesn’t take into account whether or not you actually enjoy the job—and without that factor, the answer is a no-brainer for many: a high-paying job, please. You’re earning more, so you’re likely to be happier too, right?

A new study “Wealth, Poverty, and Happiness: Social Class Is Differentially Associated with Positive Emotions” says not quite: people actually experience positive emotions from both high and low-paying jobs—but they stem from different roots. Those who earn more money tend to experience more positive emotions relating to themselves, while those who earn less money take greater pleasure in relationships and connectedness with others.

These findings may come as a surprise to some, particularly those who equate money to happiness. But that is just not the case, as explored in multiple studies including this one headed by lead author Paul Piff, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine. “Higher income has many benefits, including improved health and life satisfaction, but is it associated with greater happiness?” he asked. “After all, most people think of money as some kind of unmitigated good. But some research suggests that this may not actually be the case. In many ways, money does not necessarily buy you happiness.”

To reach these findings, Piff’s team of researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,519 people. These participants were asked questions pertaining to their income, as well as questions meant to measure their tendency to experience seven distinct pleasant emotions, which together, are thought to make up the core of happiness: amusement, compassion, awe, contentment, enthusiasm, love, and pride.

The researchers made a couple observations: subjects who made more money reported a greater tendency to experience positive emotions related to themselves such as contentment, pride, and amusement; and those who made less money were more likely to experience emotions that involved others, such as compassion and love. Additionally, those who fell on the lower end of the income scale reported experiencing more awe and beauty in the world than did those on the upper end of the scale.

“These findings indicate that wealth is not unequivocally associated with happiness. What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness,” Piff explained. “While wealthier individuals may find greater positivity in their accomplishments, status and individual achievements, less wealthy individuals seem to find more positivity and happiness in their relationships, their ability to care for and connect with others.”

During that game of “Would You Rather,” those who held the opposite of my opinion argued that more money means a better life. That belief, however, is debunked by this research, at least in terms of happiness, as explained by Piff: “Wealth doesn’t guarantee you happiness, but it may predispose you to experiencing different forms of it—for example, whether you delight in yourself versus in your friends and relationships. The findings suggest that lower-income individuals have devised ways to cope, to find meaning, joy and happiness in their lives despite their relatively less favorable circumstances.”

American Psychological Association. (2017, December 18). How Much People Earn is Associated With How They Experience Happiness. [Press Release]. Retrieved on December 27, 2017 from

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