Here’s proof that money does bring happiness—but so does old age

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Image: AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar
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From Socrates to George Carlin, people have pontificated on the essence of happiness for centuries. Theories on happiness not only vary widely—they often conflict directly. Consider the credo of unknown providence: “Money can’t buy happiness.” Jane Austen would disagree: “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of,” she wrote in Mansfield Park.

But who’s to really know the most essential ingredients of happiness? There may be one way: by providing a mathematical answer.

Since January 2013, CivicScience has polled 262,674 US consumers, asking them: “How happy are you today: Very Happy, Happy, So-So, Unhappy, or Very Unhappy?” The good news is that overall all, people are six times more likely to be happy than to be unhappy.

These people also answered combinations of other questions about their gender, age, and thousands other possible characteristics of their lifestyle, media consumption, and more. We then ranked those attributes based on happiness levels.

Much of the results won’t shock you. Wealth is closely correlated with happiness, as is being healthy. Women are slightly more likely than men to say that they are happy. Morning people are happier, as are outgoing people. However, those who follow certain sports less closely than others are happier. Other findings are quite surprising: Using Pinterest weekly makes people 14 times happier than unhappy, and so does using Facebook monthly; getting over CrossFit brings a 17 times happy-to-unhappy ratio, and checking Linkedin monthly 18 times.

Here is, in the words of some masters, a look at some of the highest-ranking happiness factors more in detail:


“There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.”

 (Victor Hugo)

It’s easy to envy young people. Many are healthy, active, and relatively unburdened, but all of that apparently does not guarantee happiness. Beginning with 30 to 34 year-olds, every age group gets progressively happier than the general population, peaking among those aged 65 and older, who are 14 times as likely to be happy than unhappy (67% vs. 5%). Among those under age 18, 13% are unhappy compared to 9% of the total general population.

Wealth: “Money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.” (Françoise Sagan)

Few things in the database are more directly correlated with overall happiness than questions about financial status. The number one question in terms of differentiating between happy and unhappy people was: “When you ‘splurge’ on yourself, what do you purchase?” Jewelry was the answer, with 23 times more happy people than unhappy answering that way. Other top attributes in the wealth category for happier people is eating at upscale restaurants several times a week; making frequent purchases on their tablet computer; and regularly managing their retirement accounts. Looking at annual household income, the multiple of happy-to-unhappy people increases as earnings increase—peaking in the $100,000 to $125,000 group where the number of happy people are 12 times that of unhappy people. From there, the multiple starts to drop down, to 11 times among those making $125,000 to $150,000, then to seven times among those making north of $150,000. Too much wealth may have diminishing returns.

Beauty: “Happy girls are the prettiest.” (Audrey Hepburn)

Ms. Hepburn may have been on to something, although this could also be a chicken-egg situation: Does being happy make you feel more attractive, or does feeling attractive make you happier? Let’s look at the question: “Would you say that you are more or less physically attractive than most people your age and gender?” Those who believe they are “much more physically attractive” are nine times more likely to be happy than unhappy. Conversely, those who say they are “much less physically attractive” are only twice as likely to be unhappy overall (reminder: the general population is six times happier than unhappy). However, the more humble answer groups of “somewhat more physically attractive” and “I’m about average” rated the highest among these answers, with 10 times more happy people. Self-confidence combined with a degree of humility seems to be the ideal mix.

Work: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” (Anonymous)

Whether it was Confucius or just another wise person who said it, this nails it. Two of the top-ranking attributes for happiness pertain to employment and job satisfaction. People who are “very happy” in their current job are 21 times more likely to be generally happy than unhappy. Contrast that to those who are “very unhappy” in their job and they are only twice as likely to be happy overall. Unhappy workers’ happiness levels are 32% lower than the general population. Looking at “happy” answer counts alone among people who are unemployed (which does not include retirees and homemakers) 42% are happy overall. That’s far less than those who are employed (61% of whom are happy) but still higher than those employed and not liking it, of which only 37% are happy. So, it may be worse to work in a job you hate than to be unemployed.

Relationships: “Happiness quite unshared can scarcely be called happiness; it has no taste.” (Charlotte Brontë)

While not on the top of the list, marital status and parental status still rank in the top quartile of attributes associated with happiness. A previous CivicScience study has already shown that people with kids are happier, in aggregate, than people without kids—despite a lot of indications to the contrary. Similarly, currently married people are 13 times more likely to be happy than unhappy. In the “Better to Have Loved and Lost Department,” even widowed and divorced people are more likely to be happy vs. unhappy than single-never married people and those who are in limbo (separated). Also, the sharing nature of social media sites correlated with happiness in this way: Using such sites regularly but not obsessively meant higher happiness levels overall. Those who spend more than four hours on social media per day are more likely to be less happy, so too much sharing (or the consumption of what others share) may be a bad thing.

Health: “To keep the body in good health is a duty… otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” (Buddha)

Numerous questions related to physical and emotional health can be found on our list. For instance, those who say they eat healthy are 14 times more likely to be happy. Other top attributes: Those who say “I’m very healthy” overall are 11 times more likely to be happy than unhappy, while those who say “I’m not very healthy at all right now” are only 2 times more likely to be happy.Those who exercise several times a week are 11 times more likely to be happy than unhappy.

Pets: “Happiness is a warm puppy.” (

Charles M. Schulz)

It wasn’t a top attribute but the Peanuts creator’s quote was too fun to pass up. Indeed, our data shows that Dog People are nine times more likely to be happy compared to six times among Cat People. In a related question about the types of pets present in the home, we find that the having any cat in the home indicates a skew towards unhappiness.

Nature: “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’” (Sylvia Plath)

Ms. Plath may be better remembered for unhappiness than happiness, but her quote showcases one final notable theme we see in the top attributes for happiness, which is in the area of travel, nature, and exploration. Those who have visited 31 to 40 American states are 15 times more likely to be happy than unhappy. Those who drive a Crossover type of vehicle, possibly to help them explore more places, are a whopping 22 times more likely to be happy than unhappy. We also observe a high lift in happy people among those who like to visit State or National Parks, who travel overseas, and who try to adjust their lifestyle to fit the environment every chance they get.