Princeton researchers Daniel Kahneman, left, and Angus Deaton looked both at how people evaluated their overall lives
It is the age-old question, oft asked and answered but never settled, about that liquid asset that consumes so great a portion of human effort. Ducats. Dinero. Dough.
Money. Can it buy happiness?
Now comes the latest word on the subject, from prominent researchers at Princeton University who analyzed more than 450,000 responses to a Gallup survey.
Their answer? Yes, up to a point.
But it depends on just what you mean by "happy."
Seeking to address the matter in a new way, the scholars broke the question into two, in a study published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors looked both at how people evaluated their overall lives, and at what they experienced just the day before.
With every doubling of income, people tended to say they were more and more satisfied with their lives on a 10-point scale - a pattern that continued for household incomes well above $120,000.
But when well-being was determined by asking a series of questions about the previous day - whether people had experienced a lot of enjoyment, laughter, smiling, anger, stress, worry - income mattered only up to about $75,000. After that, more money didn't seem to buy more - or less - happiness.
The authors of the study, who work at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, are heavy hitters in their fields.
One is psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the 2002 winner of the Nobel memorial prize in economics. The other is Angus Deaton, past president of the American Economic Association.
Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychology professor who studies well-being but was not part of the new research, praised the study.
"If you want to enjoy life, focus on relationships and health once you make more than $70,000 a year," he wrote in an e-mail. "If you are poor, it makes a great deal of sense to be concerned about higher income."
What, you scoff? Perhaps you say it's obvious. True, it's the sort of finding that provokes strong reactions around the watercooler.
So we'll save you the trouble, by publishing the thoughts from a select local panel of two.
First, Doogie Horner, whose job is to make people happy - in public. Last month he won the title of Philly's Phunniest Person at the Helium Comedy Club, and also was a quarterfinalist on the America's Got Talent television show.
"I do think the idea that money can't buy happiness is definitely propagated by rich people," joked Horner, who is also a graphic designer at Quirk Books. "Because they don't want anyone else trying to take their money."
For a money expert, we turn to Roy T. Diliberto, chairman of RTD Financial Advisers in Center City. Money is of course useful for meeting life's needs, but grasping for excess dollars, he said, doth not a contented person make.
"Money is not the master. Money is supposed to be the servant," Diliberto said. "When you have money serve your life, as opposed to the other way around, you tend to be a much happier person."
The study authors acknowledge that the question cannot be put to rest by a single research paper. Others may conceive of different ways to measure happiness, Kahneman said.
One curiosity that has surfaced recently in the field, he said, is that wealthy people seem to have a diminished ability to savor life's little pleasures. This corresponds with the new paper's finding that incomes above $75,000 do not seem to boost everyday well-being, he said.
"This is not the end of the debate," Kahneman said.
So what about the psychologist himself?
Asked about his own income, Kahneman said it was above $75,000, though he didn't get into details. And he considers himself a happy person.
He said one reason may simply be his age: 76. Studies have found that older people tend to be more contented.
"Oh, yeah, I'm an old man who is satisfied with my life," Kahneman said. "Old people tend to be."