NEW YORK – Apparently, money can buy happiness.
At least according to an economics professor who has been using research to determine the price tag on life events that, until now, people could only measure in tears and smiles.
"Imagine you're the president, trying to allocate $500 million to one activity or another. You make a judgment about where you can get the most happiness for your buck: Do you clean up the air, change women's status, put it in drugs or children?" said Prof. Andrew Oswald from Warwick University in England. "Politicians always make happiness judgments, but they don't use scientific measures."
Oswald's data has set the going rate on major life events like losing a job (minus $80,000 a year on top of the loss of salary), getting married (a bonus of $100,000 a year), getting a college degree (worth $30,000 a year) and having children (pretty much a break-even event).
Oswald determines the values based on research that suggests that the richer you are, the happier you tend to claim to be. Using large, random samples of people in 25 Western countries, Oswald determined how much happier they said they were compared to how wealthy they were. By working out the ratios of happiness changes to income changes, he calculated dollar values for them.
But other happiness researchers don't buy into Oswald's premise. Simply put, many believe that happy people generally stay happy, and unhappy people return to their misery in the long run. Money has only a minimal effect.
"(People's) happiness levels are individual and they are fairly constant," said Southern Connecticut State University marketing professor Mel Prince.
But Oswald says those fuzzy feelings people have about personal trials and triumphs don't have to be fuzzy anymore. Instead of chalking up a tragedy as an experience to learn from and get over, people can start to feel happier by earning more money.
Oswald also says his research could revolutionize the way courts handle legal settlements, especially in lawsuits in which lawyers calculate how much abstract notions like intimacy and emotional support are worth.
"It tends to be extraordinarily arbitrary," said Atlanta-based divorce lawyer John Mayoue, who has represented Jane Fonda, David Justice and Marianne Gingrich. "In one sense you're putting a price on marriage when you're doing a prenup: 'Here's what I think this marriage is worth economically.'"
But Mayoue doubted that American courts would ever take a study like Oswald's into account.
"The thought that courts would accept a quantification of life events in the context of marriage and divorce is socially repugnant, and leads to a skewed and somewhat bizarre view of the institution of marriage," he said.
Prince, who recently published a study on the relationship between happiness and money, said that while richer people tend to be happier than poorer people, not many life events will fundamentally change whether someone is a happy or unhappy person.
And trying to compensate for tragedies is unlikely to have any effect in the long term, he said.
"Happiness finds its own level. Personality factors are far more determinative of happiness than income is," he said. "If people have high self esteem and they're optimistic, the effect of income tends to get lost."