As a senior in college with an application pending at Harvard Law School, I watched the movie the Paper Chase at the cinema in Harvard Square. I had committed to going to becoming a lawyer in elementary school. Although watching the Paper Chase did not positively reinforce my choices, I did go onto receive a wonderful law school education (despite being rejected by Harvard) and engage in a happy legal career. Despite anything I may have written on my law school application about wanted to save the world one client at a time, I was not motivated by public service or the desire to make sweeping changes in society via my role as a lawyer. My professional choices were not to follow the trajectory of increasing economic reward as I made choices promoting my autonomy and engaging in work I could do competently with a minimum of drama and stress. I just wanted Monday morning to arrive with eager anticipation rather than dread, hoping what I did worked economically.
In almost 40 years of private practice, I have had great variations in income, with only a few sporadic years where the line of credit was critical to meeting all needs. At some point I stopped worrying about if enough cases or opportunities would develop in the short term and made most decisions pondering the long game.
What I didn’t understand until starting to study happiness and contentment of lawyers, was that my career choices were consistent with creating an excellent balance between money, lifestyle, and happiness.
Lots of people research, study and write about happiness. The research has consistently shown that money is necessary for happiness, but only up to a point. Although the threshold varies from country to country, the findings are all consistent that the rise of contentment or life satisfaction peaks at relatively modest levels of annual income.
A 2018 study found that in the United States and Canada, $65,000 per person, or $92,000 per couple, and $130,000 for a family of four, is statistically the optimal income for feeling happy. The key finding is that once most people surpass these levels, higher incomes to not provide more benefits to positive emotions.
Another index used in the study was “life satisfaction” involving long term goals. The optimal income there was $105,000 and $147,00 per couple. There were points where higher income had negative effects on overall life satisfaction, and incomes above $105,000 per person correlated with lower satisfaction. One contention is that greater responsibilities, time demands, work travel, more mental fatigue, and greater social comparisons to others, accompany higher incomes.
The study suggests that social interactions and leading a meaningful-purposeful life are more gratifying than material things.
References and Resources
Andrew T. Jebb, Louis Tay, Ed Diener & Shigehiro Oishi, Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world, 2 Nature Human Behavior 33, (Jan. 2018)(data based upon Gallup World Poll of 1.7 million people worldwide).