Money Can't Buy You Happiness, But a Little Respect CanS

While it's true that having money can make life easier—I mean what's easier than spending all day rolling around in a pile of $100 bills?—money doesn't necessarily make you feel happy. Hence the old cliché. But if money is out, then what does make us happy? Well, a lot of things, really: puppies, butterscotch candies, bouquets of peonies. But those things are all temporary, so what's the secret to lasting happiness? Well, if we are to believe a new group of studies, it's respect. Specifically, being respected by our peers and being well-connected socially. Well, well, well. It looks like all of us who've spent our lives trying to impress people and amass the most friends and influence were onto something after all.

These studies were led by Cameron Anderson, a psychological scientist at UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business. His research began because there are many that posit that higher status should make people happier, but the evidence has shown that having a higher socioeconomic status does not give people a boost in happiness. So Anderson and his colleagues wanted to figure out what did make people happy. They designed their studies to test the effect of sociometric status instead, which is basically the admiration and respect you command from your peers and your community and the power that bestows upon you.

He and his colleagues did several separate studies to explore the hypothesis that higher sociometric status conferred greater happiness. Their first study looked at 80 college students who were active in 12 different campus groups like ROTC and sororities. They calculated sociometric status using self-reports, peer ratings, and leadership positions held by the students. They also looked at their income and their social well-being (aka happiness).

What they found was that it was sociometric status, not socioeconomic status, that was the predictor of whether the students would have high social well-being scores. And so it is written: money can't buy happiness after all. They confirmed these findings in a second study that used a much larger and more diverse group of people. This study showed that it was having a sense of power and social acceptance that explained why people with high sociometric status tended to be happier. Well, everybody likes to be popular; that's a lesson anyone who's ever been to high school has internalized.

In a later study, Anderson and his colleagues tracked students in an MBA program. They discovered that changes in sociometric status from their pre- to post-graduation periods tracked along with their changes in social well-being. After they'd graduated, their sociometric status predicted their happiness more strongly than their socioeconomic status did. Even Anderson was amazed by the strength of the connection between respect and happiness:

I was surprised at how fluid these effects were -– if someone's standing in their local ladder went up or down, so did their happiness, even over the course of 9 months.

That obviously begs the question of why the respect and social connections you have matter so much more to your happiness than the amount of money you have. Anderson doesn't know for sure, but he believes it has something to do with how we adapt easily to having more money. So the rush of happiness or relief that comes with getting money dissipates quickly, and then we're back to being the same old level of happy. Whereas the satisfaction that comes from being plugged into a group and being respected or having power lasts longer. As Anderson says, "It's possible that being respected, having influence, and being socially integrated just never gets old." And why would it? So maybe it's time to rewrite that old saying, "He who dies with the most toys wins," since it appears it's really more of a "he (or she) who dies with the most friends and influence wins." Now quick, everybody go jump on Facebook and start friending people. You want to be happy, don't you?

Respect matters more than money for happiness in life [EurekAlert]

Photo via Yuri Arcurs/Shutterstock.