Defying numbers: Your salary doesn’t define your happiness

An old post from the Wall Street Journal has resurfaced and infected my social media community this week: it’s called “What Salary Buys Happiness in Your City?– and it’s a load of crock.

The piece is accompanied by a chart listing all the major metropolitan areas in the United States, with a column called “Happiness Threshold” that claims to define the amount of money you need to make in order to achieve satisfaction in your life. I scanned through the numbers, and saw that my old city of residence, Tallahassee, required me to make $75,000 in order to be happy. Last I checked, I only made about $18,000 the last year I lived there – and I was happy as a clam (with the obvious exception of a lack of nearby climbing).happinessthreshold

It infuriates me to see my peers devouring this notion that a salary buys happiness. There is no denying that money enables us to invest in the tools required to facilitate happiness, but it is impossible to quantify one’s ability to achieve personal satisfaction based solely upon their salary.

Perhaps what this article really identifies is a much larger societal issue: are Americans judging their happiness based upon the ability to acquire material objects, superficial status symbols, and frivolous things that bear no marker for true happiness? Do I need to make $75,000 so I can have things that give me the appearance of achieving maximum happiness – even if my true levels of happiness may be subpar? Is this Wall Street Journal article (and society at large) confusing the satisfaction of affording luxuries with the true feeling of happiness?

In 2013, I have made about $300 total – and that’s probably exaggerating it a bit. Even with all of my savings, my bank accounts peaked out at less than $10,000 this year – and I have never been happier in my life.

One of the happiest people I have ever met is a climber I met in Joe’s Valley. His spirit is so infectious that I’ve since climbed and camped with him in Indian Creek and Squamish. Jeremy’s life plan is simple: He works hard for a few months each year to afford a lifestyle that grants him experiences most people engage in for a weekend or two. His life is what most folks dream of while they slave away in a cubicle. He travels where he pleases, climbs whatever moves him to action, and shamelessly indulges in the finer things in life – like a luxurious box of 40 Tim-Bits. He understands that no salary can equate to happiness.

Happiness is a state of being you create for yourself – it isn’t an emotion accompanied by a price tag.
You don’t buy happiness; you make it.

When is the last time you were sublime in happiness, created by an experience that wasn’t attached to monetary costs? What is the last joy that you didn’t buy?

Money is an undeniable necessity in this culture – it was vital in acquiring the van I live in – but I think that rather than succumbing to the call of sacrificing your life for a paycheck, we ought to start thinking more about balance. We aren’t all cut out for the vagabonding lifestyle that Jeremy enjoys, but consideration needs to be made for whether your life’s scales are weighted too heavily towards making money to fill a void where happiness should naturally occur. Would cutting back on superficial material indulgences allow you to spend less time working and more time living? Would a smaller salary actually lead to an increase in happiness?

Your salary is not a measure of your happiness, and it certainly can’t buy you satisfaction to replace those moments you should be experiencing instead of sitting in an office. Then again, I can’t deny how badly I wish I had enough money to buy myself a big old wooden desk with a leather chair to sit and write at – but still, it wouldn’t take $75,000 to afford the things I “need” to be happy, not even close.


  1. says

    I couldn’t agree more. I was totally pissed off by the article as well. I don’t make anywhere even close to my regional “happy” salary and I’ve often thought about taking positions that would cut my income even more, but bring me closer to the things that get me stoked on life. As is, I’m quite happy. In fact, I’m happier these days than I’ve ever been before and I give credit to increased local outdoor adventures… not paychecks.

    • says

      Glad to hear your satisfied with your decision not to take those positions – I’ve been job searching lately and keep finding great gigs, but they would force me to sacrifice so much of my lifestyle that I enjoy, and it’s just not worth it to me!

  2. Chris Czaplicki says

    While I completely agree with you, especially since I’m buried under a mound of debt and couldn’t be happier, the original article actually agrees with you. If you read the published journal article, they aren’t saying that you need that much to be happy, they’re saying that once people hit those salaries you see no difference in happiness as the pay increases from there.

    • says

      I probably should have read the *other* comments before I went on an original source rant.
      tl;dr: The Wall Street Journal’s assessment made it inflammatory NOT the article

  3. says

    Previous job paid $8,000 a year more than what I make now and had excellent benefits. Fleeing that place to a lower-paying gig was worth every dime. Money isn’t everything. I’d love to have that income again, but not the soul-sucking burden that came with it.

  4. says

    Oh boy. Do I have Thoughts.

    First off, the lowest “happy” level is $62,000???

    Second, I followed the link through to the study. The study separates subjective happiness into “emotional well-being” and “life evaluation.” Life evaluation (“the thoughts people have about their life when they think about it”) goes up with increases in income. (Although this is as a log scale: big jumps at the low end of the scale and diminishing returns at the top.) Emotional well-being (“the emotional quality of an individual’s everyday experience”) rises with log income…up to $75,000. It makes sense that your emotional well-being would struggle if you’re struggling to put food on the table, pay your electric bills, etc.

    Third, there are about a million studies that say experiences are the best way to spend your money. It doesn’t seem like that big of a leap to say that living on, say, $15K a year and having experiences EVERY DAY would make you happier than working your butt off everyday for $50K.

    Finally, I feel like the “sticker price” of living is way higher than it needs to be. Yeah, life is expensive but cutting out some of the fluff allows for more experiences (thus happier) on less money (less work = less stress). We’ve cut a lot of extras to allow us to live the way we do (as, I would guess, a lot of readers of this blog have done.

    (And now that I’ve written a whole blog post, I’ll shut up. But yeah, pissed off about the way that article was reported.)

    • says

      You totally win best comment of the day, thanks for all the input Beth! Glad to see I’m not the only one who got all up in arms when I read that article. What a buncha rubbish!

  5. says

    I’ve read that journal that this came from, and I despise any reinterpretation of it. The premise was supposed to be that once you started paying people enough so that they could save for retirement, college, pay their mortgage, have a decent car, go on vacation, do their hobby, etc. that even if you offered them more money to do a job they hated they wouldn’t do it. Supposedly that number is what they listed, it’s also a few years out of date.

  6. says

    You need a certain amount of cash to buy good equipment needed for your favorite activities. However, once the basics are covered the added happiness that you get for each dollar spent decreases pretty quickly. Happiness associated with home and new car ownership is drastically overrated. Van ownership is an entirely different story. :). I’ve made less than $1000 this year and have been mountain biking while living in a van since Feb. and couldn’t be happier. Just wish I would have figured this out in my mid 20’s instead of my mid 30’s.

    Life’s always better on holiday…that’s why we only work when we need the money. – FF

  7. Jas says

    As they say, “mo money, mo problems”! But on a serious note, I think making more money just encourages you to buy more things you don’t need and I personally don’t reap happiness from a bunch of junk in my closet. I rent a room in a house and I already feel consumed by the amount of “stuff” I’ve managed to accumulate within this room throughout college; I don’t need more stuff to feel happy, I actually think I would feel much better with less clutter! Really glad you made this post :)

  8. says

    Just wanted to say thanks for throwing in all your personal money details to really make your point hit home.

    I totally agree with the confusion and frustration when thinking about how much emphasis is placed on the “need” to buy and own things (with the social emphasis on bigger is better).

    When I first graduated from college I was on a high-paying job path and had plans to buy a house as soon as I could, as an investment. Less than 4 years later I quit that job, but I do own my home. It cost $6,000 and it’s a 17ft (including the hitch) travel trailer. It was tough to downsize at first, but now I find myself wanting to pairing down even further, to the next level of bare necessities.


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