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Money vs. Happiness

Thursday, December 1, 2011
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A recent Cornell University study, supported by the National Institute on Aging, asked more than 2,600 survey participants (including 633 Cornell students) to consider scenarios involving tradeoffs between pay and reasonable work hours.

They were then asked to indicate which choice would make them "happier."

The authors of the study wanted to determine whether people would make choices to optimize their happiness or their pocketbooks. The pocketbooks won out.

The survey offered 13 different scenarios to respondents -- seven of which involved a trade-off between money and "something else, be it more sleep, higher relative income, legacy, a shorter commute, being around friends, having more time, or visiting family," says Alex Rees-Jones, one of the study's authors.

In all seven scenarios, he says, respondents were more likely to predict they'd choose the higher income option instead of an option they predicted would make them happier.

The percentage of those selecting money over happiness varied in the three different study groups used in the research -- from a high of 23 percent in one survey to 12 percent in the second to a low of 7 percent in the third.

Overall, say the study authors, the results indicate that many people are willing to make job or career choices that put happiness on the back burner in favor of other goals -- such as economic benefits.

While the results might seem initially surprising -- as other studies have found workers professing increasing desire for happiness -- popular culture for years has presented us with iconic figures known for sacrificing their happiness in less-than-fulfilling work environments.

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Was Bob Cratchett happy working for Ebenezer Scrooge? Was Willie Loman? Was Howard Beale happy when he so famously proclaimed, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"?

Certainly, many current employees still dream of breaking free of their corporate chains to pursue endeavors that they believe will bring them personal happiness.

While some, of course, do give up high-paying, high-perk jobs in exchange for rewarding careers, or volunteerism, the vast majority of Americans, particularly in this economy, continue to toil away.

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better in Boulder, Colo., says she often sees employees -- both at a senior level as well as new graduates who have loans to repay -- sacrifice personal fulfillment for a paycheck.

"Life is full of tradeoffs," she says.

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