Happiness is about Respect, not Riches

Money really can’t buy happiness, research shows. Instead, a new study suggests, those pursuing a happier life would be smart to sharpen their social skills.

In a series of four experiments, researchers found that it is the level of respect and admiration we receive from peers—not overall wealth or success—that more likely predicts happiness. They refer to this level of respect and admiration as our “sociometric status,” as opposed to socioeconomic status (SES).

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 higher sociometric status reported greater happiness, whereas their socioeconomic status was not linked to their happiness.

In a similar experiment, more than 300 people answered questions about the respect and admiration they received within their friends, family, and work circles. They also reported their personal sense of power in those social circles, and how liked and accepted they felt, along with their income and happiness.

Again, people of high sociometric status were much more likely to be happy than were people of high SES. 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.

“Where people stand in their local hierarchy matters to their happiness,” they write.

But does feeling respected and admired actually cause people to be feel happier—or could it be that people admire peers who project happiness?

The 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 professional success. Then all participants had to think about how their “similarities and differences” might come into play if they were to interact with these imaginary others.

In this case, people temporarily made to feel like they were of higher sociometric status were happier than people made to feel like they were of lower sociometric status, regardless of their actual status outside of the experiment. By contrast, people made to feel like they had high socioeconomic status were not happier than people made to feel like they had low SES. The results strongly suggest that feeling respected and admired can actually cause our happiness to increase, whereas feeling wealthy (without also feeling respected) doesn’t carry the same effect.

In the final part of the study, the researchers tracked 156 MBA students, following them from shortly before their business school graduation through nine months after graduation. For many of these students, their graduation brought a change in sociometric status—someone admired on campus, for instance, could be disrespected at his or her post-graduate job, even if his or her income went up.

The results show that as the students’ sociometric status rose or fell, their happiness level rose or fell accordingly; in fact, changes to their sociometric status were much more strongly linked to happiness than were changes to their socioeconomic status.

The findings echo past research finding that income has surprisingly little effect on happiness, says Cameron Anderson, a professor at the University of Calfiornia, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the lead author of the study.

Instead, Anderson and his 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 instead be a valuable contributing member to your groups,” says Anderson. “What makes a person high in status in a group is being engaged, generous with others, and making self sacrifices for the greater good.”