Money really can’t buy happiness, research shows. instead, a new study suggests, those seeking a happier life would do well to improve their social skills.
In a series of four experiments, researchers found that it is the level of respect and admiration we receive from our peers, not wealth or overall success, that is most likely to predict happiness. they refer to this level of respect and admiration as our “sociometric status,” as opposed to socioeconomic status (ses).
Reading: Respect and happiness
In one experiment, 80 college students from 14 different student groups rated how much they respected and admired the other people in their group, and how respected and admired they felt themselves; They also answered questions about their family’s income and their own level of happiness.
The results, published in the journal psychological science, show that people with a higher sociometric status reported greater happiness, while their socioeconomic status was not related to their happiness.
In a similar experiment, more than 300 people answered questions about the respect and admiration they received among their friends, family, and work circles. they also reported their personal sense of power in those social circles, and how loved and accepted they felt, along with their income and happiness.
again, people of high sociometric status were much more likely to be happy than people of high socioeconomic status. Through their data analysis, the researchers also found that these people were happier because they felt a greater sense of power and acceptance within their groups.
“People’s position in their local hierarchy is important to their happiness,” they write.
But does feeling respected and admired make people feel happier, or could it be that people admire peers who project happiness?
Researchers addressed that question in two additional experiments. in one, they manipulated people’s sense of status by asking them to compare themselves to people who were much more or much less respected and admired than they were. other participants had to compare themselves to people who had much more or much less wealth, education, and career success. then, all participants had to think about how their “similarities and differences” might come into play if they had to interact with these imaginary others.
In this case, people who were temporarily made to feel that they were of a higher sociometric level were happier than people who were made to feel that they were of a lower sociometric level, regardless of their actual status. outside the experiment. conversely, people who were made to feel that they were of high socioeconomic status were not happier than people who were made to feel that they were of low socioeconomic status. The results strongly suggest that feeling respected and admired can actually increase our happiness, while feeling rich (without feeling respected) does not have the same effect.
In the final part of the study, researchers followed 156 MBA students from shortly before they graduated from business school to nine months after graduation. for many of these students, their graduation meant a change in sociometric status: someone admired on campus, for example, might be disrespected in their graduate work, even if their income increased.
The results show that as students’ sociometric status increased or decreased, their level of happiness increased or decreased accordingly; in fact, changes in your sociometric status were much more strongly linked to happiness than changes in your socioeconomic status.
The findings echo previous research that found income has a surprisingly small effect on happiness, says Cameron Anderson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business and lead author of the study.
instead, anderson and colleagues’ research suggests that what really matters is the respect, admiration, and feelings of power we get from others within our face-to-face groups.
“You don’t have to be rich to be happy, but you have to be a valued, contributing member of your groups,” Anderson says. “What makes a person have a high status in a group is being committed, generous with others and sacrificing for the common good.”