Picture your ideal life—everything from where you’d live and what projects you’d pursue to the vacations you’d take, the hobbies you’d invest in, the food you would eat, and the kinds of clothes you’d wear.
How much money would it take to satisfy all your desires?
That’s the question at the crux of a recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, which surveyed about 220 people in each of 33 countries about the amount of wealth they’d require to live their version of an ideal life. Based on this number, participants were asked to choose the prize they’d hope to win in a lottery, with options ranging from $10,000 at the low end to $100 billion at the high end—an amount so large, the study’s author’s say, that it’s tantamount to unlimited wealth.
One might expect the majority of people to choose the $100 billion, unlimited wealth option. After all, the field of economics tends to hold that people are basically insatiable when it comes to their desire to consume goods and services, an assumption that helps to justify the pursuit of perpetual economic growth. Very wealthy people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos certainly seem interested in making more money even when they already have billions of dollars. Plus, the more money you have, the more options you have—so presumably, with unlimited wealth, the possibilities are endless.
But this study suggests that most people don’t think they need unlimited wealth to lead the life of their dreams. Overall, the majority of the study’s participants went for the comparatively moderate (and purely hypothetical) $1 million or $10 million prize options. For a 38-year-old with a life expectancy of age 78, the study points out, $1 million works out to just $25,000 per year.
Psychological researchers Paul Bain and Renata Bongiorno, who co-authored the paper, say this finding has important implications when it comes to how cultures normalize excessive consumerism.
“The ideology of unlimited wants, when portrayed as human nature, can create social pressure for people to buy more than they actually want,” Bain, the study’s lead author and a reader at the University of Bath in the UK, said in a recent press release. “Discovering that most people’s ideal lives are actually quite moderate could make it socially easier for people to behave in ways that are more aligned with what makes them genuinely happy and to support stronger policies to help safeguard the planet.”
Does money buy happiness?
To be sure, some people in every country wanted as much money as possible to satisfy their desires. In one of two surveys conducted for the experiment, 32% of Americans chose the $100 billion option, compared to just 8% of people in China.
In the second survey, Indonesia was the country with the highest portion of people who chose the maximum option at 39%, while just 8% of people in Russia went with $100 billion.
People who opted for unlimited wealth weren’t necessarily motivated by selfishness or greed. The study didn’t offer perimeters about what an ideal life might look like—leaving it up to participants to decide whether they interpreted the question to encompass altruistic goals or to focus on their individual fulfillment. Indeed, the authors note that the people who chose the unlimited option were more likely than others to mention taking action on social issues, though overall both the unlimited and limited groups said they’d use the money on themselves and their friends and family.
The study builds on previous research that’s explored the connections between money and happiness. Research suggests that up to a certain point, greater wealth is associated with greater happiness. But studies have also shown that there’s a cutoff point after which, for the average person, more money no longer seems to increase life satisfaction. (In the US, that cutoff point is an annual household income of $105,000.)
There’s no doubt that having enough money to satisfy needs like food and shelter and achieve basic financial security makes an enormous difference in people’s happiness. After those basic needs have been met, money can also boost happiness by helping us to reach our bigger aspirations.
What this new study suggests is that for most of us, achieving even the life of our wildest dreams wouldn’t require the kinds of sums that the richest people in the world have accumulated. Instead, the authors write, most people aspire to be “comfortable but not extravagant.”