It’s less about money buying happiness, but more about the unhappiness without it
There was a lot of press at the weekend on the general theme that ‘money buys happiness’, prompted by the ONS well-being analysis issued on Friday. But thinking more about the results that were covered briefly here on Friday, these headlines might draw the wrong conclusion. There is a very strong association between unhappiness (rather, lower well-being) and a lack of money. The association between money and happiness is less strong .
ONS report the relation between wealth and well-being as the strongest. But looking at the charts, ‘life satisfaction’ is the only category where the relationship is fairly linear (i.e. as you go up through wealth deciles, life satisfaction steadily rises). For all other aspects of well-being, the effect is very clearly detrimental for the lowest wealth deciles, but the positive effect is less clear cut as wealth increases. [charts repeated below.]
Most obviously, everyone is unhappy: those in the 3rd, 7th and 10th deciles only marginally less so. (Though to be honest, I can’t see how everybody can be measured as unhappy, but must be missing something.) (Also, what happened to the fifth decile on the charts?)
‘Sense of worth’ is a little higher overall for the higher deciles, but again surely only very limited evidence that highest wealth is associated with highest worth outcomes. Lastly, only the 7th decile stands out as less anxious.
Now this interpretation implicitly contests the results of the ONS statistical tests, which suggest the more general linear relationship though increasing wealth to increased well-being. But the discussion above suggests the relationship might not be linear, and if that is the case the statistics [regression coefficients] on which the conclusions are drawn will be distorted by the highly negative observations for low deciles and effectively disregard the more complex nature of relations for higher deciles. (I would be interested in the view of the ONS on this.)
The general point might be bolstered by the ONS finding a less strong relation between incomes and well-being (with only ‘life satisfaction’ and ‘happiness’ statistically significant), when it is hard to see any difference from the wealth charts.
The journalists seem like good but reluctant capitalists, unsurprised but seemingly a little disappointed to find (at face value) money buying happiness (though alive to cases when it doesn’t). The FT also quotes Professor Diane Coyle bemoaning the results as impractical and wants the ONS to use its scarce resources to measure things that policymakers might be able to influence (e.g. employment or spending on mental health). I have some sympathy for the resource point, but, given we have already paid for the analysis, don’t think the lessons should be so straightforwardly dismissed as either impractical or obvious.
A system that has for around 40 years been aimed at increasing the financial reward for success within an increasingly competitive, even aggressive, environment, has not so obviously rewarded the successful judged from the point of view of well-being. But boy does it appear to have hit hard the less successful or less fortunate. It seems to me that there is more food for thought here than first meets the eye.