In a state with greater income inequality, the happiest place to occupy is not at the top of the income distribution, as one might think, but somewhere in the middle that offers clear views. on people like us, a new study suggests.
According to sociologist Tim Liao of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, it is the ability to compare oneself to people from similar backgrounds, both people who earn more and others who earn less, that determines how our income affects our happiness – not the absolute. amount we earn.
“Contrary to popular belief, more income doesn’t necessarily make people happier. The actual amount a person earns doesn’t matter much in terms of happiness,” Liao said. “People who can make both upward and downward comparisons – especially with other people of the same sex and ethno-racial group – are best placed when it comes to their subjective well-being. . “
In the study, published in the journal member, Liao found that in states with relatively equal incomes, people’s happiness was less affected by their incomes because their economic positions were less clearly defined, making social comparisons less meaningful.
Although there has been significant research on happiness and income inequality, much of this work has been based on income inequality at the aggregate level and aggregate measures of happiness that did not capture the relationship. at the individual level, he said.
Recent research suggests that social comparison theory, the premise that people’s self-ratings are based on their comparisons with other people they perceive to be better or worse off, could play a key role.
Liao wanted to explore whether the placement of people in the income distribution mattered – that is, whether those who could make these upward and downward social comparisons were happier than the outliers who were much richer or poorer than their peers.
Since individuals select the people they use as benchmarks for social comparisons, Liao also wanted to research which demographic – gender, ethnicity / race, or both – was most relevant.
Since no single survey was available that provided data on happiness as well as income and demographics, Liao linked data from two national surveys, both conducted in 2013, which involved many of the same respondents. . Liao’s sample consisted of over 1,900 people.
The 2013 US Time Use Survey was the most recent survey with questions on well-being and provided Liao with a measure of everyone’s happiness. For this study, participants kept a time diary for a single day, rating on a seven-point scale how happy they felt while performing three randomly selected routine activities. The scores were added together to obtain a composite score representing each person’s level of happiness.
“Assessing a person’s happiness in the course of their daily activities – a concept social scientists call ‘experienced happiness’ – may more accurately reflect their overall satisfaction with life than their response to questions. survey that ask him to rate his satisfaction. General subjective terms, “Liao said.
Using participants’ annual income and demographics from the Current Population Survey, Liao modeled income inequality at the state and individual level.
He developed an individual-level measure by comparing the annual incomes of individuals with those of peers belonging to the same-sex, ethno-racial and gender / ethno-racial groups in their state.
Liao found that gender / ethno-racial group was most important for social comparisons because individuals’ inequality scores were more similar in this table than when grouped either by gender or ethnicity / race only.
Examining the links between individuals’ inequality scores and happiness within each group, Liao found that individuals with higher inequality scores than their peers also had lower happiness scores.
That is, people whose incomes were significantly higher or lower than their peers – meaning they could only make social comparisons up or down rather than back and forth – were overall less happy.
Similarly, Liao found that as income inequality within a state increased, the negative association between one-way social comparisons and happiness also increased.
Liao said the findings confirm the importance of social comparison theory in research on happiness and income inequality.
And the same analytical method could be applicable in investigations of other social concerns at the individual level, he said, such as the links between inequality and adverse effects on mental and physical health.