Are You Dreaming of Riches?

Fantasizing about wealth will only backfire. Plus: Our addiction to wealth, why money is so sexy, desire and happiness, and more.

The Fraudulent $100,000 Claim about Happiness

A lingering claim is put out of its misery

Suppose you learned from a study that the death of a spouse is a very unhappy experience. The study authors claim that if you compare the happiness of people who are widowed to those who are currently married, the married people are happier. Would you then be able to say that the difference in happiness between currently-married and widowed people can be assumed to be the same as the difference in happiness between currently-married people and single people? Could you say, or imply, that if only the single people would get married, they would gain as much in happiness as the widowed people lost when their spouse died?

Of course not! That’s just ludicrous. You’d have to be a dope not to see the flaws in that logic.

Sadly, we have a lot of dopes. Many of them get the thoughts from their tiny little minds recorded in some of the most prestigious publications.

There is a claim that has been floating around for more than a decade – that marriage provides people with the same amount of happiness as would $100,000 a year in income. I have been wondering where it came from ever since David Brooks posed this question:

“Two things happened to Sandra Bullock this month. First, she won an Academy Award for best actress. Then came the news reports claiming that her husband is an adulterous jerk. So the philosophic question of the day is: Would you take that as a deal? Would you exchange a tremendous professional triumph for a severe personal blow?”

What interested me was the claim Brooks made, without citing any source:

"According to another [study], being married produces a psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 a year." 

I just found the source. I stumbled on it accidentally when I was critiquing the false Wonkblog claim that marriage makes you happier. The Wonkblog contributor (not Ezra Klein) who made that claim posted a link to a study by David Blanchflower and Andrew Ostwald as evidence. That’s where the $100,000 meme started.

As I noted in my critique, the authors did not follow the same people over time, and of course, they did not do a real experiment with random assignment (ethically impossible), so they cannot make any claims about causality. But the familiar bad practice of making causal statements (e.g., getting married makes you happy) from correlational data was not the only problem here. The other was equating the magnitude of the feelings associated with the death of a spouse (even if we could make causal claims) with the magnitude of feelings about getting married.

We actually know quite a lot about how happiness changes for the same people over time as they get married and, sometimes, stay married. It doesn’t! Seriously. Read all about it here.

Blanchflower and Ostwald had data on income, marital status, and happiness. They found that widowed (and separated) people were less happy than currently-married people. Then they took that difference in happiness and, using their income data, calculated how much income a person would need to get that equivalent in happiness. Here is the precise sentence that set off cascades of wrong-headed claims:

“A lasting marriage is worth $100, 000 per annum (when compared to being widowed or separated.”

Based on that, we got David Brooks’ claim about marriage providing the psychic gain equivalent to more than $100,000 per year. We got another claim in the New York Times that “on average, a single person would need to receive $100,000 annually to be as happy as a married person with the same education, job status, and other characteristics.” We got a CNN story with the headline, “What’s love worth? Try $100,000.” In that article, the question, “How much money would it take to make you as happy as a married couple in love” was answered with: “…a happy marriage is worth $100,000 a year.” (Note that CNN is adding even more unwarranted embellishments – now we are talking about happy marriages and about love. The original study looked at current marriages, and did not select marriages based on happiness or love.) We got the Wonkblog nonsense. We got many, many more instances of matrimaniacal credulity. (Just Google some of the key terms.)

Bottom Line. No, getting married will not provide you with the same boost in happiness you might get if you were rewarded with an additional $100,000 a year in income. In fact, the most likely outcome, based on the best of the many available studies, is that you will not become any happier at all.

[Note. For a collection of links to my previous writings on the topic, see “On getting married and (not) getting happier: What we know.”]

Are You Dreaming of Riches?