Want to Get Rich? Be (Moderately) Happy

by Laura Rowley

Some people believe that earning the most money will make them incredibly happy. What they probably don't know is that being incredibly happy may not earn them the most money.

A new study finds that when it comes to financial success, you're better off being a moderately happy person rather than someone who's chronically ecstatic.

Mild Is Beautiful

Researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and Michigan State analyzed several sets of data in a paper recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Their conclusion: Mildly happy people -- those who rank themselves a 7 or 8 on a life-satisfaction scale of 1 to 10 -- achieve more than the blissful 10s.

"The people in our study who are most successful in terms of income, education, and career are mildly happy most of the time," said Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois.

Numerous studies have found that happy people enjoy an advantage over malcontents: Cheerful people earn more, enjoy better health, have closer relationships, and live longer, among other benefits. But in this case, researchers wanted to explore how happy you need to be to get those perks. Do the 10s enjoy the highest well-being in all areas of life?

Emotional Rescue

The answer is no -- and there may actually be a downside to scoring at the top of the scale. In a survey of more than 100,000 people in 96 countries, for example, the 8s on the 1-to-10 scale perform best in the realm of achievement.

Diener surmises that the 8s benefit from the creativity and energy of happiness, which help them stay committed in the pursuit of long-term goals and overcome obstacles along the way. But the 8s also maintain a touch of worry, stress, or internal dissatisfaction that motivates them to strive for more.

"Emotions steer our behavior, and they are there for a reason -- to help us function better," says Diener.

Swiss psychologist Norbert Semmer, for example, studied people who were dissatisfied with their work, following them over a period of time. Not surprisingly, these workers were more likely to quit their jobs and find a new situation. While a few people were simply chronic complainers, many of those studied were happier in their new workplace. In other words, negative emotions played an important role in improving their circumstances.

Sociability Trumps Money

Among the studies reviewed, researchers analyzed a survey of college freshman in 1976, who were asked to rank their happiness. Twenty years later, a follow-up survey of the same people found that those who scored in the top 10 percent in well-being reported average salaries of $62,681, compared to $54,318 for the bottom 10 percent. But the next-to-happiest group was earning the most: $66,144. Analyses of long-running panel studies from Australia, Germany, and Britain produced similar results.

On the other hand, if you define success in terms of relationships, the joyful 10s are the clear winners. In a survey of current college students, the "very happy" group was more gregarious and ranked higher in self-confidence, energy, number of close friends, and time spent dating. (Those who ranked themselves merely "happy" had higher grade point averages, attended class more frequently, and were more conscientious.)

"The 10s are more sociable and positive, so people like them," says Diener, and the global survey demonstrated similar results. (I interviewed several millionaire entrepreneurs this week and they all ranked themselves 10s. Energy, confidence, and relationships may be the key. See my blog for that story.)

To Misremember Is Divine

The effusively happy tend to look at their relationships through rose-colored glasses. In a separate study of dating couples not included in this paper, Diener's research team randomly beeped participants while they were with their partners, and asked them to write down how happy they were. Then they surveyed them at a later time about their relationships.

Some participants reported being happier in retrospect than they had felt in their moment-to-moment account. "People who misremembered in a positive direction were more likely to be together six months later," Diener says.

In other words, the 10s tend to idealize their partners and look for the best in them, leading to more enduring and upbeat relationships. Alternately, the lack of satisfaction that drives the 8s to want more in their work lives might also prompt them to be more critical of their partners, to more readily see their faults -- and to be more willing to look around for something better.

A Positive Negative

But while relationships are better for the joyous, it turns out that there's a big deficit to perpetual euphoria: Super-happy people don't live as long as the moderately happy, according to a long-term study of gifted children. "We were shocked that the happiest people didn't live longer," says Diener.

He speculates that the most upbeat people may not take symptoms of illness seriously, or may follow a physician's recommendations in a halfhearted way. Or they may take foolish risks, such as the active 77-year-old Californian who went biking during a heat wave and later succumbed to heat stroke.

In addition, just as the physiological arousal associated with chronic stress takes a toll on health, so too can the sustained arousal of intense positive emotions, Diener suggests.

"People who chase continual emotional highs will usually fall short because the biological cards are stacked against their being able to sustain this emotional intensity," he writes in an upcoming book on well-being. "In the quest for continuing intense positive emotions, some individuals turn to drugs."

Pursue Happiness at Your Own Pace

The upshot? If you feel generally satisfied with your life, your work, and your relationships most of the time, think twice before buying into the self-help movement and its search for a continuous streak of "peak moments."

"Happiness, like spirituality, is partially a private pursuit, defined by individuals based on their personal values," says Diener. "Be wary when people tell you to live for the moment, to strive for an exciting life, or that you ought to be happier. Chasing super-happiness is a mistake that can lead you astray and be self-defeating."


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