Happiness is Being Richer Than Your Friends

A new study has confirmed what social scientists have known for decades: happiness comes from success relative to one’s peer group rather than from the level of success itself.

Happiness in the bank (LAT)

MONEY might indeed buy you happiness, but only if you have more money than your peers. New research shows that the richer people are compared with others in their age group, the happier they tend to be. “It creates a kind of treadmill of consumption,” says Laura Tach, a sociology graduate student at Harvard University who conducted the research. “We earn more money, but so does everyone else.” The results of this monetary race seem to affect happiness more than a new car or a bigger house.

Researchers assessed age, health, total family income and the general happiness of approximately 20,000 20- to 64-year-olds using data gathered from 1972 to 2002 in the General Social Survey, a national survey conducted every one to two years. Tach and collaborator Glenn Firebaugh, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University, found that physical health was the biggest predictor of happiness, followed by income and education. According to the findings, an individual who earns $20,000 more than the peer group average is 10% more likely to be very happy than someone who earns $20,000 less than the average. The absolute size of an individual’s income had only a small effect on happiness.

The social science term for this phenonomen is “relative deprivation.” Robert Merton and his colleagues conducted a study of Army enlisted men during World War II:

In his study of the American soldier, Merton̢۪s conclusions concerning relative deprivation were based on a comparison of the military police and the air corps. The ranks of the military police were relatively static: promotion was rare, and everyone was perfectly happy with their career prospects. The air corps, however, proved to be very different. Due to the high risk and high fatality rate associated with the job, the air corps experienced a high turnover rate of personnel. No sooner were one set of sergeants, for example, promoted than another group of sergeants were required. Promotion prospects were abundant, however many in the air corps were dissatisfied with their career prospects. Merton explained this by the theory of relative deprivation. People in the air corps were seeing many of their colleagues being promoted, thus leading them to question why they, also, were not receiving promotions. This was set in contrast with the military police, who were seeing no promotions, and thus did not question their career prospects as frequently.

So, while the air corps personnel were more likely to be promoted, it was less meaningful since their peers were getting promoted, too–and the ones who were passed over were truly unhappy, either from feelings of inferiority or rage at the system.


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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.