Wealth and happiness 1
Unpacking the hedonic paradox: A dynamic analysis of the relationships between financial capital,
social capital and life satisfaction
Ilka H. Gleibs1, Thomas A. Morton2, Anna Rabinovich2, S. Alexander Haslam2,
John F. Helliwell3
1University of Surrey, 2University of Exeter , 3University of British Columbia
***Accepted for publication in the British Journal of Social Psychology****
Address for correspondence:
Ilka H. Gleibs
Department of Psychology
University of Surrey
Work on this paper was supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council
(RES-062-23-0135) and by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. We thank Sarah
Asprey and Helena Vardy for collecting data for Study 2.
Wordcount: 7066 (text body)
Wealth and happiness 2
Does money buy happiness? Or is happiness derived from looking outwards toward our social
networks? Many researchers have answered these questions by exploring whether the best
predictor of well-being is either economic or social (or some fixed combination of the two).
This paper argues for a dynamic perspective on the capacity for economic and social factors
to predict well-being. In two studies we show that both money (individual income) and
community (social capital) can be the basis for individual happiness. However, the relative
influence of each factor depends on the context within which happiness is considered, and
how this shapes the way people define the self. Study 1 primes either money or community in
the laboratory and demonstrates that such priming shifts individual values (so that they are
economic versus communal) and determines the extent to which income is more (versus less)
predictive of life satisfaction than social relations. Study 2 looks at these same priming
processes in the external world (with people traveling to versus from work). Both studies
show that while money can become the basis of happiness when the self is defined in
economic terms, the role of community relations in predicting happiness is more stable across
Keywords: Life satisfaction; Happiness; Subjective Well-Being; Identity
Wealth and happiness 3
Unpacking the hedonic paradox: A dynamic analysis of the relationships between financial capital,
social capital and life satisfaction
Our hearts will be in a very bad way if they're focused only on the state of our finances. They'll be
healthy if they are capable of turning outwards, looking at the real treasure that is our fellow human
Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury, New Year message, 2008)
What makes people happy?1 Until recently, most economists and policy-makers
subscribed to the view that individual well-being increases as a function of consumption at
both individual and aggregate levels (Easterlin, 2005; Pigou, 1932). This idea is based on an
assumption that individual needs can be satisfied by carrying out transactions in a free market.
Because money is the universal means of exchange within such a market, standard utility
theory predicts that increased income should lead to increased utility (Clark, Frijters, &
Shields, 2008; Frey, & Stutzer, 2005). Utility models suggest that humans are economic
beings and that money is the path to happiness. Indeed, recent analyses show that income can
adequately capture variance on certain measures of life satisfaction (e.g., Gallup Global Poll
data based on the Cantril ladder; Deaton 2008; Helliwell, Barrington-Leigh, Harris & Huang
2009; Stevenson & Wolfers, 2008). However, other studies suggest that once basic needs are
met, additional income does not further enhance happiness (see Ahuvia, 2008; Dolan,
Peasgood, & White, 2008; Diener & Biswas-Diener, 2002; Easterlin, 2005; Lane, 2000;
Layard, 2005). Thus, there is variability in the degree to which income predicts well-being,
highlighting the need to consider predictors other than income. This was the aim of the
present paper, which considers the dynamic role played by both economic and non-economic
factors — including those that stem from the individual’s social environment (Helliwell &
Wealth and happiness 4
Putnam, 2004), and the psychological processes that guide the individual’s assessment of their
happiness — in determining individual well-being.
Social determinants of well-being
Reflecting the view that human motivation is oriented towards higher-order needs and
goals, psychologists often focus on things other than money as determinants of well-being.
Some have argued that happiness is a product of personality traits (e.g., DeNeve & Cooper,
1998) or genetic factors that are believed to predispose individuals toward optimism (i.e.,
happiness) or pessimism (unhappiness; Weiss, Bates, & Luciano, 2008). From this
perspective, happiness literally comes from within and although people may experience
temporary fluctuations in well-being, overall levels of well-being are relatively stable
(Brickman & Campell, 1971; Heady, 2007).
More recently, this perspective has been challenged by evidence for the dynamic and
changeable nature of subjective well-being (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006; Easterlin, 2005;
Headey, 2007; Lucas, Clark, Georgellos, & Diener, 2003). In response to this apparent
fluidity, social scientists have stressed importance of social forces (Helliwell, 2008). For
example, on the basis of a major review, Baumeister and Leary (1995) argued that the need to
belong and to have close social relationships is a fundamental human motivation.
Accordingly, the quality of social relations has direct implications for individual health,
adjustment and well-being, and events that damage social relations can lead to marked
declines in these indicators.
Similarly, self-determination theory argues that satisfaction of psychological needs
like autonomy, relatedness, and personal growth form the foundation of well-being (Deci &
Ryan, 2008; Ryan & Deci, 2000), with relatedness playing a particularly important role.
Relatedness is defined as people’s quest for authentic social relationships and their deep-
seated desire to be involved with other human beings (Diener & Seligman, 2002, 2004;
Sheldon, Elliot, Kim, & Kasser 2001). Such relationships are seen to be a source of intrinsic
Wealth and happiness 5
motivation, which has the capacity to provide a stronger and truer basis for action (and hence
happiness) than the extrinsic motivations associated with consumption of goods and services.
Based on such evidence, Easterlin (2005) concluded that in their pursuit of happiness
individuals would be wise to allocate rather more time to their social relations and rather less
to economic activity. Nevertheless he and others have noted that many people cling to a belief
that income, physical comforts, and material goods will make them happier, and as a result
they devote a disproportionate amount of time working to accumulate these things. Easterlin
argues that in the process of pursuing the material goods that they believe will make them
happy, people often sacrifice family life and other social relations that might actually deliver
the outcomes for which they yearn. Effectively, they become trapped on a ‘hedonic treadmill’
(Easterlin, 1974, 1995; Layard, 2005).
Unpacking the hedonic paradox
Although previous work has focused on different predictors of happiness, it is
nevertheless the case that many researchers have assumed that the best predictor of well-being
is either economic or social (or some fixed combination of the two). In part, this arises from a
desire to provide definitive, context-independent answers to the question of what makes
people happy (e.g., as represented by Stevenson & Wolfers, 2008, and several chapters in
Diener, Helliwell & Kahneman, 2010). This type of thinking leads to an apparent paradox in
which people’s pursuit of happiness is often observed to involve enthusiasm for activity that
compromises their well-being (Ahuvia, 2008; Kasser, 2002).
Recently, social psychologists have moved away from the question of whether money
per se predicts happiness to instead focus on the psychological consequences of money. More
precisely, research has explored how economic thinking and behaviour (i.e., spending money)
affects the self and social relations. For example, Vohs and colleagues have shown how
priming the concept of money turns people away from others. As a result, individuals who are
reminded of money become more personally self-focused and less socially responsive — both
Wealth and happiness 6
in terms of their willingness to help others and their openness to receiving others’ help in
return (Vohs, Mead, & Goode, 2006, 2008; Zhou, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2009). Along slightly
different lines, Dunn, Aknin and Norton (2008; see also Aknin, Norton, & Dunn, 2009)
showed that spending money on others (rather than oneself) predicts greater happiness. Thus,
if money is used as a pro-social tool it has a positive impact on well-being and fosters social
connectedness. Related research by DeVoe and Pfeffer (2009) shows that organizational
structures can amplify or attenuate economic thinking in ways that have consequence for the
relationship between money and self-rated happiness. Specifically, individuals who are paid
by the hour attach more importance to money as the basis for happiness and display a stronger
connection between income and well-being (DeVoe & Pfeffer 2009).
These lines of research highlight the way in which situations that bring money to the
forefront of people’s minds can have consequences for the way in which individuals orient
themselves to others and evaluate their own happiness. This idea is consistent with broader
research on focalism. This perspective suggests that when people form judgments (e.g., about
their happiness) they do not take account of all of the information that might help them reach
an accurate assessment. Instead, they focus on the specific information that is accessible to
them in the judgmental context at hand. In line with this reasoning, individual judgments of
life satisfaction have been found to depend on the information that people have available to
them at the point of assessment (Schwarz & Strack, 1999). For instance, people tend to report
a better mood on sunny rather than rainy days, and consequently also report greater happiness
and life satisfaction when the weather is sunny rather than rainy (i.e., people used their
situational mood as a basis for determining global happiness; Schwarz & Clore, 1983).
It could be argued that one reason why money emerges as a stable predictor of
individual happiness in much research is that the structures of everyday life provide pervasive
reminders of the importance of money. Accordingly, when people are asked about their
happiness, economic issues will often be salient in ways that lead them to overestimate the
Wealth and happiness 7
contribution of economic concerns to their well-being. However, when judgmental contexts
draw people’s attention away from money, one could anticipate that the relative importance of
money for happiness would subside and be replaced by alternative predictors, such as the
quality of people’s social relations.
Contrary to the substance of many of the debates that have structured the literature on
money and well-being, this perspective suggests that happiness is unlikely to be
straightforwardly economic or social. Instead, it suggests that both economic and social
factors contribute to individual assessments of happiness. Importantly, the relative
contribution of each of these is likely to vary according to a perceivers’ attentional focus
within a given judgmental context (Frey & Oberholzer-Gee, 1997).
The present research
The present research examined the relative contribution of economic and social factors
to individuals’ assessments of their happiness. Specifically, we test the prediction that
happiness can be predicted on the basis of both individual income and the quality of one’s
social relations. Building on past work on focalism, we suggest that the relative contribution
of each of these factors is unlikely to be stable, but rather will vary as a function of the
judgmental context. When context focuses people on money, judgments of their happiness
should be informed by considerations of their economic circumstances. Conversely, when
context focuses people on social relations, the quality of these should become a stronger
predictor of well-being. Although previous research has examined contextual variations in the
link between income and well-being (e.g., DeVoe & Pfeffer, 2009), to date research has not
simultaneously considered the effects of context on both economic and social predictors of
happiness. This was the novel contribution of the present research.
By examining both social and economic predictors of well-being, and variation in
their predictive power across contexts, we can also explore a range of more complex
possibilities about the role of each of these in structuring individual happiness. For example,
Wealth and happiness 8
drawing on research into social capital (Putnam, 2000) and psychological perspectives which
highlight connections to others as a fundamental need or intrinsic motivator (e.g., Baumeister
& Leary, 1995; Deci & Ryan, 2008; Jetten, Haslam & Haslam, in press), one might expect
that the state of a person’s social relations could be a more enduring and less context-
dependent predictor of individual happiness than financial considerations (e.g., Diener &
Seligman, 2004; Sheldon, et al., 2001). Thus, in addition to testing the role of context in
shaping the economic and social predictors of happiness, we also consider the relative
contribution of each of these predictors. Our first study explored these issues in a controlled
experiment, whereas the second study explored these ideas in a field setting.
The aim of Study 1 was to examine the relationship between income and individual
happiness as a function of contexts that make particular concepts more or less salient.
Specifically, we manipulated the contextual salience of money or community (versus a
control condition) in a context where people were asked to make assessments of their
happiness. Based on previous theory and research, we expected that the relationship between
income and well-being should be particularly strong when money was made salient.
Conversely, when alternative concepts, like community, are salient the predictive power of
income for well-being should diminish and that of social capital (i.e., the quality of the
individual’s social relations) should increase.
Participants and design
Participants were 192 adults (80.2% female) aged between 16 and 71 (Mage=32.8,
SD=14.34). All participants lived in the UK. Participants were recruited via online fora and
mailing lists. No remuneration was offered for participation. The study employed a between-
subject design with three experimental conditions (income salience, community salience,
control) to which participants were randomly assigned. Household income and satisfaction
Wealth and happiness 9
with family and community relationships were measured before the experimental
manipulation. The dependent variable was life satisfaction.
Procedure and measures
The study was presented as research on “the relationship between language ability and
life satisfaction”. Participants were first asked to answer demographic questions by indicating
their age, gender, country of residence, household income per year, and number of people in
the household, as well as two questions about satisfaction with family and community
relationships. To measure these, participants were asked to rate the extent to which they were
satisfied with their family and community relationships on 7-point scales ranging from 1
“very satisfactory” to 7 “very unsatisfactory”. The two items were significantly correlated,
r(191)=.53, p<.001 and were therefore averaged to form a single measure of satisfaction with
social relationships. An open-ended question was used to measure household income.
On the next page participants were asked to complete “a short task involving language
ability and sentence construction”. They were then presented with ten scrambled sentences.
Their task was to form meaningful sentences using the scrambled words. The set of scrambled
sentences that followed consisted of six manipulation sentences (that included either
economic, social, or neutral concepts depending on the condition) and four filler sentences
(identical across conditions; see Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996, for a description of this
priming procedure). In the money salience condition the sentences included words related to
money and highlighted its general importance (e.g. “Lack of money is the root of all evil”,
“There are few sorrows in which a good income is of no avail”); in the community salience
condition the sentences included words related to family and friendship and highlighted the
importance of community (e.g. “It takes a long time to grow an old friend”, “Friends are
relatives you make for yourself”). In the control condition, sentences unrelated to money or
community were used (e.g. “Common sense is not so common”). To ensure participants
Wealth and happiness 10
correctly understood the task, they were given an illustrative sentence with a solution
(identical across all conditions) before commencing the task.
On the next page participants completed a manipulation check. This was presented as
another language ability task and consisted of eight word stems that participants were asked to
complete so that each stem became a full word. The stems were selected such that some of
them could be completed with money-related words (e.g. wea(lth), ca(sh)), and some with
community-related words (e.g. fr(iend), fa(mily)). Participants were asked to complete each
stem with the first word that came to their mind. For each participant we calculated the
number of money-related and community-related words that were used to complete the stems.
Finally, participants completed a life satisfaction scale. This consisted of the five items
(α=.88) from the Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS; Diener, Emmons, Larsen & Griffin,
1985). Participants responded to the items on 7-point scale from “strongly disagree” to
A mixed ANOVA was conducted with experimental condition as a between-subject
factor and the number of money-related and community related words as the repeated factor.
There was a significant effect of experimental condition: F(1,189)=108.25, p<.001, η2p =.36.
However, this main effect was qualified by a significant interaction between condition and the
type of words, F(2,188)=11.03, p<.001, η2p =.10. Planned contrasts revealed that participants
in the money salience condition used more money-related words to complete stems
(Mmoney=1.08, SD=0.90) than participants in the other two conditions (Mcommunity=0.47,
SD=0.68; Mcontrol=0.42, SD=0.62), t(188)=5.72, p < .001. Conversely, participants in the
community-salience condition used more community-related words (M=2.32, SD=1.36) than
participants in the other two conditions (Mmoney=1.67, SD=1.34; Mcontrol=1.48, SD=1.37),
Wealth and happiness 11
t(188)=3.51, p=.001. On this basis we conclude that our priming of money versus community
Prior to the analysis, all variables were checked for outliers and missing values. Forty
cases were excluded because they contained missing values for income. These were equally
distributed across the conditions2. Four cases that were identified as outliers on the income
measure and two on SWLS (more than three standard deviations above or below the mean)
were also removed from further analysis. This resulted in a sample of 146 participants, with
household income ranging from £7,500 to £85,000 (M=38,464, SD=23,629). Due to the
positively skewed distribution, we log-transformed the income variable for the further
analysis. Mean, standard deviations and intercorrelations between variables are presented in
Money and happiness. To investigate the effect of salience of money versus
community on the relationship between income and SWLS, we conducted a moderated
regression analysis. Two dummy variables were created to code three priming conditions
(control=0, money=0, community=1, and; control=0, money=1, community=0). Interactions
were computed between each of these dummy variables and the centered income variable. At
Step 1 we regressed SWLS on gender. At Step 2 the centered income variable and two
dummy variables were included as predictors. Finally, at Step 3 two interactions were added
as predictors in the regression equation.
With all predictors entered, the full model accounted for significant variance in
SWLS, R =.15, F(6,138)=4.18, p<.001. The effect of gender was significant (F(1,142)=4.69,
p=.032), indicating that women reported more life satisfaction than men; β=.18, t(143)=2.16,
p<.001. At Step 2, entry of the main effects was significant, R2ch=.08 Fch(3, 140)=4.13,
p=.001. Inspection of the regression coefficients at this step showed that this was due to a
significant effect of income, β=.27, t(140)=2.83, p=.005. Participants with higher income
Wealth and happiness 12
reported higher life satisfaction; the effect of gender was no longer significant. These main
effects were qualified by a significant interaction between income and experimental
condition, as indicated by a significant effect of the variables included at Step 3, R2ch=.043,
Fch(2, 138)=3.53, p=.032. A further exploration of this, revealed no relationship between
income and SWLS in the control condition, β=.073, t(41)=.47, p=.64; a significant positive
relationship in the money salient condition, β=.48, t(56)=3.85, p<.001, and; no relationship in
the community salient condition, β=.02, t(43)=0.11, p=.90. Consistent with our prediction,
income significantly predicted well-being only when economic concepts were salient in the
Social relationships and happiness. To investigate the effect of context on the
relationship between indicators of social relationships (instead of income) and life
satisfaction, we conducted a second regression analysis. Here, after controlling for gender, we
regressed SWLS on perceived social relations (centered), the two dummy variables
representing the experimental conditions and the interaction between these variables as
With all predictors entered, the full model accounted for significant variance in
SWLS, R2=.26, F(6, 138) =8.05, p<.001. Note that the explained variance in this model is
higher than the explained variance in the previous model. At Step 2 in this analysis (after
controlling for gender), entry of the main effects was significant, R2ch=.23, Fch(3, 140)=14.11,
p < .001. The regression coefficients revealed that this was due to a significant effect of social
relations, β=.45, t(140)=6.09, p < .001. Unlike income, this effect was not qualified by
interactions involving experimental condition at Step 3, R2ch=.003, Fch(2, 138)=.25, p=.78.
Hence, participants who perceived their social relationships to be superior reported higher
well-being, regardless of whether social relations or money was made salient in the
Wealth and happiness 13
The results of this study show that both social and economic forms of capital
contribute to individual assessments of well-being. However, the role of economic capital
depended on whether it had been made salient in the judgmental context. Specifically, income
contributed to individual well-being only when participants were primed to think in economic
terms. When money was not salient, or when alternative concepts were salient, income made
no contribution to individual well-being. In contrast to the context-dependent effects of
income on well-being, the effects of social relations were both stronger and more stable. The
perceived quality of respondents’ social relationships contributed significantly to the
prediction of their well-being, but this effect did not vary as a function of the judgmental
context. Priming community-related concepts didn’t strengthen this relationship and priming
economic concepts did not diminish it. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the model in
which well-being was predicted on the basis of social relationships explained more variance
than the model in which income was the key predictor. This particular finding is consistent
with research by Helliwell and colleagues (2009) which found that social support has greater
capacity to predict life satisfaction than income (Helliwell, 2006; Putnam, 2000). On this
basis, it would seem that while directing people’s attention to money can strengthen the
importance of economic capital for individual happiness (DeVoe & Pfeffer, 2009), the same
is not true for social relations, which appear to be a more stable basis for happiness than
Although interesting, it is possible that these patterns were a function of our
experimental manipulation rather than some more general primacy of social relations over
economic concerns. Specifically, our manipulation might have led to a valence asymmetry
between the priming of money relative to the priming of social relations and it is notable that
the sentences used for priming money-related concepts were mostly associated with negative
states (e.g., “lack of money is the root of all evil”) whereas the sentences used to prime
Wealth and happiness 14
community-related concepts mostly referred to positive states (e.g., “friends are relatives you
make for yourself”). This asymmetry could have contributed to the different results obtained
in the money and community conditions. Further, given that these effects were obtained in a
controlled laboratory setting, questions remain about whether similar patterns would be
observed in a more naturalistic setting in which money (and community) are primed in less
obvious ways. This was an issue that we sought to resolve in a second study.
Our second study aimed to address a potential methodological weakness of our first
study by using a priming manipulation that was not confounded with the valence of
statements. To maintain a valence-neutral context, we conducted the study in a field situation
that would function as a natural prime for money- or family-related concepts. In addition, we
used a more comprehensive measure of satisfaction with social relationships. Finally, we also
aimed to address the still open question about the process behind the observed contextual
shifts in the importance of money.
Thus far we have argued that the dimensions along which the self is defined, and
subsequently evaluated, are not static but rather vary as a function of contextual factors (e.g.,
cues, frames of reference) that make particular self-definitions, and dimensions of self-
evaluation, meaningful (Lazarus & Folkman, 1996; Schwarz & Strack, 1995; 1999; Turner &
Onorato, 1999). This line of reasoning is consistent with self-categorization theory (Turner,
Oakes, Haslam & McGarty, 1994) which suggests that the ways in which people define
themselves, and the dimensions on which they distinguish themselves from others, can also
vary as a function of context. As agents in the world, we are capable of defining others and
ourselves in terms of values that are either more economic (i.e., reflecting levels of perceived
economic success) or more social (reflecting the social context), and different circumstances
allow particular self-relevant values to be realized (e.g., Doosje, Haslam, Spears, Oakes, &
Koomen, 1998; Van Rijswijk, Haslam, & Ellemers, 2006). Accordingly, different judgmental
Wealth and happiness 15
contexts may make salient and reinforce particular values that inform the evaluation of one’s
standing in the world. Along these lines, we reasoned that contextual shifts in the values that
define the self might parallel the observed shifts in the factors that are used to evaluate the
self and assess individual happiness.
According to Schwartz (1994), personal values are defined as desirable goals that
serve as guiding principles in people’s lives. Schwartz derived ten motivationally distinct
types of values that focus on different aspects of our life such as power, achievement,
hedonism, stimulations, and benevolence. In addition, specific values prevail in certain
environments. For example, working in the financial sector will most probably encourage
power and achievement values, whereas working as a kindergarten teacher might trigger the
importance of benevolent values. Thus, a given social context can enable individuals to
realize certain values but might also block others (Sagiv & Schwartz, 2000).
On the basis this, we hypothesized that contexts have the capacity to affect a person’s
value system. To the extent that contexts make money salient, people may be more inclined to
define themselves in terms of economic values. To the extent that contexts make social
relations salient, people may instead define themselves more strongly in terms of communal
values. To explore this possibility, we focused on contextual shifts in power and benevolence
values. Power refers to the importance of social status, prestige, control and dominance of
people and resources. Benevolence instead refers to preservation and enhancement of the
welfare of people with whom one is in contact (Sagiv & Schwartz, 2000). Our prediction is
that contexts that activate the concept of money (versus community) should also have
consequences for self-defining values of power (versus benevolence) and that these shifts
should parallel contextual changes to the relationship between income and well-being. We
also explored whether the previously observed context-independency of the relationship
between social relations and well-being also held in this study.
Wealth and happiness 16
Thinking about the everyday situations that could prime either community- or money-
related concepts, we focused on the context of commuting to or from work. Following the
logic of priming, we reasoned that people travelling from work are likely to be focused on
money-related concepts because they are leaving a context that has defined the self in these
terms. Conversely, people travelling from home are more likely to be focused on family- or
community-related issues because the place they are leaving is one in which the self is
defined in these terms. This reasoning seems plausible in so far as it applies the logic of
priming to real-world settings. Nevertheless, to test the validity of this logic we conducted a
pilot study that sought to establish the utility of direction of travel as a manipulation of
economic versus communal self-definition.
Participants, design and procedure
Participants were an opportunity sample of 44 adults (aged 19 to 55; M=36.83,
SD=10.13) travelling on a commuter train in the UK. Participants were predominately men
(n=33) and employed in the private sector (n=31). Twenty participants were surveyed while
traveling on the 08:15 morning service from Colchester to London Liverpool Street3 on a
Monday morning and 24 were surveyed travelling on the 18:02 service from London
Liverpool Street to Colchester on a Friday evening. This route is a popular commuting route
for people who work in London’s business district.
Participants completed a short survey presented as research on “language ability and
personal values”. Participants were first asked to answer questions about their travel (where
they are coming from, where they are traveling to). They were then asked to complete 12
word-stems using an identical methodology to Study 1. Finally, they answered some
demographic questions concerning their age, gender, occupation, and the sector (private vs.
public) in which they worked.
Wealth and happiness 17
We conducted a mixed ANOVA with the direction of travel (from work vs. from
home) as a between-subject factor and the number of money-related and community-related
words as the repeated measures factor. The analysis revealed no main effect for the direction
of travel, F(1,42)=0.38, p=.54, η2p =.009; but a significant effect of the word type whereby
participants completed more stems with community-related words (M=1.36, SD=1.22) than
with money-related words (M=0.68, SD=1.00), F(1,42)=8.53, p=.006, η2p =.17. Importantly,
this main effect was qualified by a significant interaction between the factors, F(1,42)=5.09,
p=.029, η2p =.11. Pairwise comparisons revealed that participants coming from work used
more money-related words to complete stems than participants travelling from home (Mfrom
work =1.00, SD=1.10; Mfrom home=0.30, SD=0.73, t(42)=2.43, p=.02). Conversely, participants
coming from home used more community-related words than participants travelling from
work (Mfrom home=1.60, SD=1.10; Mfrom work=1.16, SD=1.23) although this difference was not
statistically significant, t(42)=1.10, p=.22. This pattern supports the claim that money-related
concepts are more salient (i.e., naturally primed) among people travelling from work than
they are for people travelling from home. In the main study we applied this travel direction
manipulation to the same design as used in Study 1.
Participants and Design
Participants were 43 people travelling on a commuter train in the UK. Participants
were predominately men (n=27) and employed in the private sector (n=28). Participants were
aged between 24 and 58 (M=41.13, SD=9.13). Twenty two participants were travelling on a
Monday morning service from Haslemere to London-Waterloo and 21 participants were
travelling on the evening service from London-Waterloo to Haslemere on the same day (this
route is a popular commuting route for people who work in London’s business district)4. All
individuals who took part in the study were travelling to or from work respectively, and
Wealth and happiness 18
participated voluntarily. The independent variables were household income and satisfaction
with social relationships. The dependent variables were life satisfaction and personal values.
Procedure and measures
Participants completed a short survey on the train. The study was presented as
research on “commuters’ life satisfaction”. Participants were first asked to answer questions
about their travel (where they were coming from, where they were traveling to), and then
completed measures of income, satisfaction with social relationships, values and well-being.
Income. Respondents’ household income was assessed with an open question asking
respondents to indicate their current annual household income before tax.
Satisfaction with social relationships was measured with 15 items that covered a range
of social domains, including family, workplace, and community (e.g., “I communicate
regularly with close friends”, “I make the effort to contact my family members regularly”, “I
feel a sense of connection to the community in which I live”, “I feel close to the people that I
work with”, α=.81).
Subjective well-being was measured using one item. Participants were asked to answer
the question, “How happy would you say you are these days?” and provided their responses
on a scale ranging from 1 (very unhappy) to 7 (very happy; DeVoe & Pfeffer, 2009, Study 2).
Personal Values. We assessed the dimensions of, power and benevolence from
Schwartz’s (1992) basic values inventory. Participants were asked to rate the importance of
each value as a guiding principle in their life. Their responses ranged from 7 (of supreme
importance) through 3 (important) and 0 (not important) to -1 (opposed to values). The value
subtype power was measured with the single values social power, authority, and wealth
(α=.82). The value subtype benevolence was measured with the single values helpful,
honesty, forgiving, and loyal (α=.66)5.
Wealth and happiness 19
Lastly, participants completed demographic questions — indicating their age, gender,
profession, and work sector (public vs. private)
A MANOVA with direction of travel (from home vs. from work) as a between-subject
factor and age, gender, income, and sector as dependent variables revealed no demographic
differences between the samples, F(4,31)=1.05, p=.40, η2p =.12; all univariate tests Fs<2.
Prior to the main analysis, variables were checked for outliers and missing values. Seven
cases were excluded because they contained missing values for income. These were equally
distributed across the two conditions. One case that was identified as an outlier on the income
measure (more than three standard deviations above the mean) was also removed from further
analysis. This resulted in a sample of 35 participants, with household income ranging from
£24,000 to £500,000 (M=110,485, SD=103,485). Due to the positively skewed distribution,
we log-transformed the income variable for the further analysis.
Money and happiness. Means, standard deviations and intercorrelations can be found
in Table 2. To investigate the effect of direction of travel on the relationship between income
and well-being, we conducted a moderated regression analysis. The condition was coded
(from work=0, from home=1) and the income variable was centered. At Step 1, we regressed
well-being on gender and age. At Step 2, the centered income variable and condition were
included as predictors. Finally, at Step 3, the interaction between income and condition was
With all predictors entered, the full model accounted for significant variance in well-
being, R2=.35, F (5, 29) =3.05, p =.025. The effects of gender and age were not significant at
Step 1, F(1,29)=1.42, p=.25, and neither were the main effects tested at Step 2, R2ch=.017,
Fch(2, 30) =0.28, p < .1. However, at Step 3, there was a significant interaction between
Wealth and happiness 20
income and direction of travel, R2ch=.25, Fch(1, 29) =10.90, p=.003. To explore this
interaction, we conducted simple slope analysis (Aiken & West, 1991). For participants
travelling from home (i.e., family/ community salient) there was a non-significant negative
relationship between income and life satisfaction, β=-.23, t(17)=1.37, p = .172. However, for
participants travelling from work (i.e., money salient) this relationship was significant and
positive, β=.68, t(16)=2.50, p=.024. As predicted, income contributed to well-being only
when money-related concerns were likely to be salient. Income did not contribute to well-
being when social-related concerns were likely to be more salient than money.
Social relations and happiness. To investigate the effect of social relationships on
well-being as a function of context, we repeated the above analysis with social relations
(centred) as a predictor instead of income. With all predictors entered, the full model
accounted for significant variance in well-being, R2=.55, F(5, 29)=20.58, p=.04. Note that the
variance explained by this model was higher than the variance explained by the previous
model. The main effects entered at Step 2 (after controlling for gender and age that had no
significant effect), were significant, R2ch=.21, Fch(2, 30)=4.89, p=.004. Inspection of the
regression coefficients showed that this was due to a significant effect of perceived social
relations on well-being, β=.50, t(30)=3.12, p=.004. Direction of travel had no impact on well-
being at this step, β=.007, t(30)=0.47, p=.96 and there was no interaction between context and
social relations at Step 3, R2ch=.001, Fch(1, 29)=.04, p=.85. As in Study 1, participants who
perceived their social relationships to be superior reported higher life satisfaction, regardless
of the contextual salience of money- or family-related issues.
Salient values. As can be seen in Table 2, benevolence values (M=5.84, SD=1.00)
were rated as more important than power values, (M=3.68, SD=.53; t(34)=11.53, p<.001). To
investigate whether direction of travel had an impact on this, we conducted two additional
regression analyses. In the first analysis, after controlling for gender and income, we
regressed power values on condition. With all the predictors entered, the full model accounted
Wealth and happiness 21
for significant variance in power values, R2=.28, F(4, 30)=4.04, p=.015. Whereas gender had
no effect, income was significantly related to power values, β=.45, t(31)=2.60, p=.014. Thus,
the higher their income the more importance participants ascribed to power values.
Interestingly and in line with predictions, direction of travel was also a predictor of power
values, β=-.32, t(31)=-2.04, p=.05. Participants travelling from work ascribed more
importance to power values than participants travelling from home. In the second regression
model, we tested whether personal values that are related to benevolence are influenced by
the salience of the context. Thus, we regressed benevolence values on condition after
controlling for gender and social relations. With all the predictors entered, the full model did
not account for a significant amount of variance in benevolence values, R2=.06, F(4, 30)=0.53,
p=.71; and no effects were statistically significant, p’s>.28. However, paralleling the stability
of social relations as a predictor of well-being across conditions, it is noteworthy that
benevolence was generally valued more than power irrespective of the direction of travel
(M=5.84 on a scale with a maximum value of 7).
The results of Study 2 demonstrate that the relationship between income and well-
being is affected by the contextual salience of money-related concerns. Consistent with Study
1, this study also shows that whereas the effect of income on life satisfaction varies across
contexts, the contribution of social relations is stronger and more stable. Thus, these findings
suggest that the power of family and community concerns to predict well-being is relatively
constant and is not easily affected by external circumstances. In contrast, the predictive power
of money-related concerns appears to be more context-dependent and fleeting.
Unlike in Study 1, we did not find a significant main effect of income on well-being.
This is interesting in its own right as it should be noted that participants in this study were
wealthier relative to the national average and would be classified as top-earners in the UK
(see ONS, 2010). This may have flattened the influence of economic concerns on well-being
Wealth and happiness 22
(Diener & Seligman, 2009; Frey & Stutzer, 2002). Despite this, it is interesting that even for
this relatively wealthy sample, the salience of economic considerations had a significant
bearing on the relationship between income and happiness. Supplementing these effects,
parallel effects of context were observed on the centrality of different values to the self. When
traveling from work, people placed greater value on power than when travelling from home.
Consistent with the principles of self-categorization theory (Turner et al., 1994), this suggests
that the shifting relationship between money and happiness coincides with shifts in self-
related psychological structures, such as personal value systems.
Interestingly, in this study we were able to successfully translate the semantic priming
task in Study 1 to a very different and more ‘ecologically valid’ setting (Bargh, 2006).
Previous priming research has mainly been conducted in controlled laboratory settings. Our
study demonstrates that priming can also play an important role in complex and stimulus-rich
‘real-world’ environments. Although the everyday environment of commuting contains
numerous cues that can activate different thoughts and feelings across individuals, the fact
that this specific contextual prime had a significant impact on the bases of individual well-
being and on self-defining values underscores the importance of construct activation in the
real world (Berger, Meredith, & Wheeler, 2008; Mogilner, 2010).
Although one aim of Study 2 was to address the possibility of valence asymmetry
driving the effects in Study 1, one could still argue that direction of travel could also involve a
valence asymmetry. Going to work may be less positive an experience than going home.
However, our results indicate no main effect for direction of travelling on life satisfaction and
the main study was conducted on one day to control for variation in life satisfaction across the
week. Thus it is unlikely that valence asymmetries in our manipulations explain the observed
Wealth and happiness 23
This paper has explored the relationships between two different forms of capital
(financial and social) and individual well-being and the role of context in shaping these
relationships. Two studies demonstrate that activating money-related concerns via semantic
(Study 1) or natural (Study 2) priming results in a strong positive relationship between
income and happiness — a relationship that was absent without such priming. In contrast,
social capital (i.e., satisfaction with social relationships) was a stronger predictor of well-
being and this relationship was stable across contexts. As a partial explanation of this pattern,
Study 2 suggests that the salience of community-related concepts and values is generally
greater and more stable than that of economic concepts and values.
The present research makes an important contribution to the ongoing debate about
whether or not income is an important determinant of happiness. Like other social
psychological research (e.g., Akin et al., 2009; DeVoe and Pfeffer, 2009), we found that the
money–happiness link is highly variable. Indeed, in the absence of activating economic
concepts, our results suggest that income may have little or no bearing on individual
happiness. Yet by comparing the effects of income with those of social relations, we are also
able to extend previous research by demonstrating not only that social capital is equally (if not
more) important for well-being, but also that this influence is less susceptible to contextual
variation. In this sense, it can be argued that social relations provide a more solid foundation
for happiness than money.
This last point is also consistent with work showing that priming money can, in fact,
reduce happiness relative to priming time (Mogilner, 2010) because undermines motivations
to spend time with friends and family. Together with our own findings, this highlights the fact
that the relevant question in happiness research is not simply whether (or how much) money
makes us happy. Instead, it seems more fruitful to reflect on how much attention people pay
to money and what the consequences of this are. Similarly, we would argue that the academic
Wealth and happiness 24
debate about whether or not money is the source of happiness might itself be drawing us away
from properly understanding the sources of happiness that reside in our communities and
social networks (e.g., Jetten et al., in press).
At a theoretical level, evidence that the capacity for economic and social capital to
predict well-being is bound up with the salience of self-defining values (Study 2), suggests
that understanding in this area may be advanced by appreciating the way in which well-being
is contingent upon context-dependent self-definition and evaluation (e.g., in ways suggested
by self-categorization theory; Turner et al., 1994). Looked at in these terms, one can argue
that whether financial or social capital prove to be the source of happiness, will depend not
only on factors that make these things temporally or chronically salient, but on the broader
social systems within which these two forms of capital are valued and embedded.
Limitations and future research
Although our findings were consistent across studies, there are several limitations that
warrant consideration. First, our samples were not representative of the UK (or elsewhere) in
terms of their income — being high relative to national averages. Thus we have to be cautious
when seeking to generalize on the basis of our findings. Although we used different measures
of subjective well-being across studies, these measures are susceptible to contextual change
(Kahnemann & Krueger, 2006). As such, before generalizing it would also seem important to
replicate these findings with alternative indicators of well-being (e.g., the General Health
Questionnaire: DeVoe Pfeffer, 2009).
Future research also needs to further consider why the effect social relations on well-
being seems to be more stable than the effects of money. Our initial prediction was that the
effect of social relations should be context-dependent in the same way that the effect of
money is. This prediction was not confirmed. Instead across both studies there was evidence
that social relations were a stable, context-independent, predictor of well-being. Although this
effect can be explained (e.g., with reference to the enduring importance of social relations; or
Wealth and happiness 25
to the role of structural factors in making these chronically salient), any explanation is
inevitably post hoc.
What makes people happy? Is it simply money, or does happiness stem from looking
outwards toward our social networks and communities? The two studies presented suggest
that while happiness can have an economic basis, this basis is unstable and dependent on the
concepts and values that are activated in the context within which people contemplate their
happiness. In comparison, the quality of social relations seems to be a more important basis
for individual happiness, and one that is less susceptible to contextual variation. In
demonstrating these points, our analysis provides evidence for a different way of thinking
about age-old questions about the source of individual happiness. It suggests that if we want
to know what makes us happy, we need to account for the context in which this question is
posed, and how this context structures the values attached to the self. When communal values
are relatively more central to people’s sense of self, as they were in this research, it appears
that social capital may provide a more stable and enduring basis for happiness.
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1 Social scientists typically refer to happiness (a philosophical term) as subjective well-being.
Subjective well-being refers to a person’s positive (or negative) evaluation of his or her
life, with reference to things such as positive emotional states, and the sense of meaning,
purpose and fulfillment. In line with this usage, we will use the terms happiness, well-
being and life satisfaction interchangeably (Ahuvia, 2008; but see Ryan, Huta, & Deci,
2 We compared participants who did not indicate their income with those who did on the life
satisfaction measure as well as the measure of social relations. On both these variables,
there were no significant differences between those participants who did not indicate their
income compared to those who did, F(2,188)=.68; p=.51, η2p =.007
3 All data were collected by the same (two) experimenters. Efforts were taken to ensure that
the same individuals who completed the questionnaire in the morning did not also do so in
the afternoon — although this was unlikely to happen since the train lines selected for
these studies transport up to 400,000 people per day (with at least four trains per hour on
each of the routes on which data were collected).
4 In the main study all participants were asked at the same day of the week to control for
potential variability in reported well-being due to systematic differences in daily well-
being across the week (Reis, Sheldon, Gable, Roscoe, & Ryan, 2000).
5 Although the reliability for the benevolence measure was relatively weak, Cronbach’s alpha
was above .60 and we deemed this acceptable in light of the fact that this is an established
Wealth and happiness 33
Means, Standard Deviations and Intercorrelations, Study 1 (N=146)
Variable M SD 2 3
1. Life satisfaction 4.02 1.13 .20* .47*
2. Household income 38,464 23,629 .17*
3. Social relations
Note *p<.05, **p<.01
Table 2. Download full-text
Means, Standard Deviations and Intercorrelations, Study 2 (N=35)
Variable M SD 2 3 4 5
1. Life satisfaction 5.25 1.19 .045 .46** .12 -.06
2. Household income 110,485 103,100 -.14 .44* -.01
3. Social relations 4.71 0.80 -.08 .08
4. Power 3.68 1.00 .07
5. Benevolence 5.84 0.53
Note *p<.05, **p<.01