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Study suggests health, not wealth, determines happiness

Study suggests health, not wealth, determines happiness

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U.S. Census data suggest health is a far more powerful determinant of an individual's happiness than his or her income, marital status, age or any other factor.

A study of the "Economic Determinants of Happiness," based on data gathered by the U.S. Census has revealed that health is a far more powerful determinant of an individual's happiness than his or her income.

Here's how the numbers break down:

  • Self-described "healthy" people are 20 percent happier than average, while "unhealthy" people are 8.25 percent less happy.
  • Individuals in the highest income bracket -- think of them as the 1% -- are only 3.5 percent happier than average. Which means health has 5-6 times more impact on overall happiness than having an above-average income.
  • Married people are about 10 percent happier than people who are not. It should be noted, however, that other studies that exclude divorced individuals from the "not married" category show that people who have never married are about as happy as people who are married.
  • Having children reduces happiness by a very small amount, 0.24 percent per child, though the researchers believe this might be because respondents to the survey skew toward lower income families, who are more likely to feel the pinch of the added expenses associated with children.

As Technology Review's indispensable Physics arXiv blog notes, the researchers are cautious about over-interpretation of their data. In particular, the data they had to work with did not allow them to address matters of cause and effect.

So are healthier people happier, or are happy people more likely to care for their health? Or does money allow all of the above? Given the average Americans' stagnant real wages and the increasing cost of healthy food and the time required to exercise, I'd bet the arrow of causality goes both ways.

Photo: Mike Baird

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure