Home » What Would You Trade for 50% More Money? Americans May Be Trading-off Happiness

What Would You Trade for 50% More Money? Americans May Be Trading-off Happiness

What if, at the end of the year, you could have half your annual income as a bonus? The catch: you must give up something important.

New York Life released their “Keep Good Going” report today, a survey of more than 2,000 Americans that assesses how people cultivate goodness in their lives, and how optimistic they are about their ability to “keep good going.”*

Despite their willingness to give up important things for 50% more money (more on that below), nearly half of respondents said the quality of their lives is better today than it was five years ago. And despite challenging economic times, a majority—56% of respondents—feel that the economic downturn has had no negative impact on their ability to live life as a good person.

It isn’t that finances aren’t central to Americans’ ability to live well: they are. Ninety percent of respondents stated that “living a good life” would be easier if they didn’t have to worry about the bills, if they were able to be financially sufficient in retirement, and if they could protect their family financially against life’s uncertainties. Which is why one question in particular caught my eye:

Suppose you could increase your income by 50% in exchange for the following trade-offs? Which would you do, take the money along with the trade-off, or not take the money?

● A minority of Americans say they would spend less time with their spouse or partner (20%) or children (11%) in exchange for more money, but nearly half (45%) said they’d spend less time with their friends.

If we have learned anything in the last 100 years of research on happiness, it is that people’s happiness is best predicted by the breadth and the depth of their social connections. Relationships with our friends and families are of critical importance for our happiness and well-being, and generally speaking, 50% more money can’t buy us happiness equivalent to the joy that comes from time spent with our loved ones.

Most of us—80 or 90 percent—seem to realize this when it comes to spending time with our families, but we Americans are quick to forget about our friends. Other research shows that friendships are particularly important for women’s health and happiness. While men tend to be okay trading off time with friends (but keeping family close), women typically see a drop in their well-being when they see their friends less.

● A third of Americans would “sleep significantly fewer hours per night” in exchange for 50% more income.

Here’s a hard truth: it is hard to be happy when we’re exhausted. We humans don’t function all that well when we are seriously tired, because sleep affects dozens of physiological processes in our bodies and brains. Sleep helps regulate our mood, our attention, our intelligence and creativity—even how much we weigh.

Suffice it to say that trading sleep for money won’t pay out for most people when it comes to health and happiness.

● A large minority would also trade in their vacations (35%) or their favorite hobbies and recreational activities (43%) for more money.

This one begs a question about what makes life worth living. Who are you without your hobbies? Perhaps your work is so well aligned with your interests this is a trade-off you can make without taking a hit to your happiness.

Even so, the catch may come from the rest—the break—that our hobbies and recreational activities bring us. Although as a society we think that we can keep the pedal to the metal 24/7, few of us actually can.

Research has shown us that we human beings function best when we practice “discontinuous productivity.” In other words, we tend to feel better—and get more done—when we rest between periods of work. If your hobbies create periods of rest for you, think twice before you give them up.

What the Keep Good Going report captures is subtle. Often when we think we are making one trade off—perhaps time with friends or tinkering with a hobby—we end up trading off something much larger: our health, or our happiness. What would you trade off in order to increase your income by 50%?  Share with us by commenting below!

*I worked as an independent research consultant to New York Life, and helped design the “Keep Good Going” report.


  1. Selina says:

    I wouldn’t trade anything important for 50% more income but I am lucky enough to have all I need even if more money would make things easier. My question for you is: How does the research showing the importance of the depth and breadth of social connections apply to introverts? I find that too many social interactions draining. And by too many, I mean more that once or twice a week!

    • This is such a good question, and I get it often enough that I’m definitely going to have to blog about it. The short answer, though, is that social interactions and social connections are not the same thing. So long as you feel connected to friends and family socially, I’m not sure that how you accomplish that really matters (we don’t have good research there that I’m aware of). So connect in a way, and frequency, that feels good to you!

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