Conversable Economist: Does Income Bring Happiness?
Back in 1974, Richard Easterlin published a paper called "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence" (available here and here, for example). Easterlin raised the possibility that what really matters to most people is not their absolute level of income, but their income level relative to others in society. If relative income is what matters, then an overall rise in incomes doesn't make me any better off relative to others, and so my happiness does not increase. Income becomes a sort of arms race: even as we all race to get more, it doesn't actually make us any happier. ...
He concludes with:
... For my own part, I confess that I find happiness surveys both intriguing and dubious. It seems to me that higher levels of income are typically correlated with more health, education, travel, consumption, and a higher quality of recreation, so it's not a surprise to me it seems to me that happiness rises iwth income. On the other side, it does seem to me that survey questions about life satisfaction are answered in the context of a particular place and time. If a person says that their life satisfaction was a 7 in 1960 on a scale of 0-10, and another person says that their life satisfaction is a 7 in 2013, are those two people really equally satisfied? To put it another way, if the person from 2013 was transported by a time machine back to live in 1960, with all their memories and knowledge of the technologies, medicines, foods, education, and travel available in 2013, would that time traveller really be equally happy in either time period? I suspect that when most people are asked to rank happiness on a scale of 0-10, they don't say to themselves: "Well, people living 100 years from now might have extraordinarily high levels of income and technology, so compared with them, I'm really no more than a 2." At best, survey questions on a scale of 0-10 seem like an extremely rough-and-ready way of measuring life satisfaction across very different countries or across substantial periods of time.