Deconstructing Happiness: Wealth, Health, and… Cross-Overs?
Note: This article was originally published on the CivicScience blog on May 13, 2015.
If you search for famous quotes about “happiness” on GoodReads.com, you will find 7,868 results from people ranging from Socrates to George Carlin. Though far short of the 40,006 quotes you would find about “love,” happiness is one of the most thought-about, spoken-about, and written-about topics in history.
Deep thoughts on what comprises or defines happiness not only vary widely – they often conflict directly. Consider the credo of unknown providence: “Money can’t buy happiness.” Jane Austen, for one, 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? Well, we may have one way of providing an answer.
Welcome to our Profiling Happy Study (#profilinghappy)
Since the beginning of 2013, CivicScience has included a question – “How happy are you today?” — across our polling network that has since captured 262,674 U.S. consumers who have answered one of five ways: Very Happy, Happy, So-So, Unhappy, or Very Unhappy.
Each of our 262,000+ respondents also answered numerous other questions in our polling database. We know their gender, age, and thousands of other possible characteristics of their lifestyle, media consumption, and more. When we analyze all these other questions, we can rank them based on how strongly associated they are with happiness.
Much of what we found won’t shock you. Wealth is closely correlated with happiness and is seen in many of the highest-related attributes. Women are slightly more likely than men to say that they are happy. Morning people are happier, as are outgoing people. Those who follow certain sports less closely than others are happier.
We found hundreds of attributes (i.e. poll responses) in our database that were remarkably tied to happiness. Let’s look at a few highlights from our study to fact-check our favorite happiness quotes:
“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 more likely to be happy than unhappy (67% vs. 5%). Among those under age 18, 13% are unhappy compared to 9% of the total population. Ah, teen angst.
“Money may not buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.” – Françoise Sagan
It’s hard to find a quote about wealth and happiness that doesn’t reek of elitism- but the relationship is undeniable. Few things in our database are more correlated with overall happiness than questions related to financial status. Our number-one question in terms of differentiating between happy and unhappy people was: “When you ‘splurge’ on yourself, what do you purchase?” The top answer: Jewelry. Jewelry-buyers are 23X more likely to be happy. People who eat at upscale restaurants several times a week; make frequent purchases on their tablet computer; and regularly manage their retirement accounts – all much happier than average. Looking at annual 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 12X that of unhappy people. BUT, too much wealth may have diminishing returns. People making $125,000 to $150,000 are less happy than those making $100-125k. People making over $150k are only slightly happier than average.
“Happy girls are the prettiest.” ― Audrey Hepburn
Ms. Hepburn may have been on to something. Let’s look at our 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 25% more likely to be happy overall compared to the general population. Conversely, those who say they are “much less physically attractive” are more than twice as likely to be unhappy overall. However, the biggest positive difference in the ratio of happy to unhappy people was in the more humble answer groups of “somewhat more physically attractive” and “I’m about average.” Self-confidence combined with a degree of humility seems to be the ideal mix.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” ―Confucius
The great Confucius nails it. Two over-indexed attributes for happiness pertain to employment and job satisfaction. People who are “very happy” in their job in general are 21X more likely to be happy than unhappy overall, while those who are “very unhappy” in their job are 122% more likely to be unhappy overall. Then, looking at employment status, people who are unemployed, which excludes retirees and homemakers are 88% more likely than the general population to be unhappy overall. That suggests, when considering the previous statement about job satisfaction, that it may be worse to work in a job you hate than to be unemployed.
“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. We’ve already shown that people with kids are happier, in aggregate, than people without kids – despite a lot of indications to the contrary. Similarly, married people are 20% happier than the general population. In the “Better to Have Loved and Lost Department,” even widowed and divorced people are more likely to be happy than “single, never married” people and those who say they are separated. Not sure if social media counts, but it certainly facilitates a lot of sharing – a number of social site usage attributes ranked high, including LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Facebook.
“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. Those who say they eat healthy are 25% more likely than the general population to be happy. Other top attributes: Those who say “I’m very healthy” overall are 11X more likely to be happy than unhappy, while those who say “I’m not very healthy at all right now” are 133% more likely to be unhappy compared to the general population. Those who exercise several times a week are 11X more likely to be happy than unhappy.
“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 slightly more likely (7%) to be happier than Cat People on average. In a related question about the types of pets present in the home, we find that having any cat in the home indicates a slight skew towards unhappiness.
“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 15X more likely to be happy than unhappy and are 24% happier than the general population. Those who drive a Crossover type of vehicle, possibly to help them explore more places, are a whopping 22X more likely to be happy than unhappy. (Side note: The type of car someone drives was found to be a top predictive question in general to ask; see our study on that topic here.) 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.
Want to the see the Profiling Happy data study for yourself?
We’d love to see what you can find in the data. Consider this the “civic” side of CivicScience: we’re offering a link to the fully interactive data file, showing the individual answers that most closely correlate with happiness and unhappiness. Please share your findings online (#profilinghappy) and email us your infographics and other reports at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Download the full .xls file online: