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Happy or rich: what’s more important?



20 Jul 2015
News 5 min read

Evidence shows a link between our income and happiness to a certain point, but what truly makes us happy?

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What really makes us happy, beyond earning a certain level of income?

study by Princeton University in 2010 showed that, in the US, those on very low incomes have increased rates of stress and decreased happiness. Then as income increases up to $75,000, our happiness increases along with it because we can meet our basic needs. However surprisingly, the study found on average people who earned more than $75,000  experienced decreased happiness and more stress.

So, what are the factors that are essential to our happiness?

In this article, we look at:

  • What are our needs and which are most important for happiness?
  • What factors are most important in being happy?
  • How does happiness in Australia compare to other nations and what we can learn from this?
  • What can we learn about happiness from our experience of the pandemic?

Be Healthy was created by VicHealth to provide helpful tips and advice on how you and your family can stay healthy. You can read more Be Healthy articles here.

VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio spoke with ABC Radio Melbourne about the importance of factors other than income in being happy.


What are our needs and which are most important for happiness?

Photo credit: By Androidmarsexpress - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


You might have heard people refer to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a theory that we behave according to how well our basic needs are met. Meeting our basic needs is most important, then once this is achieved, we can look at things like finding creative satisfaction and being recognised, which are less important in Maslow’s theory.

Our basic needs include:

  • air
  • water
  • food
  • sleep
  • health
  • shelter

“Those on very low incomes are unable to meet basic needs like food, housing, health care, [and this] is associated with increased stress and decreased happiness,” said Dr Demaio.

Other basic needs outlined in Maslow’s theory that are not requirements for survival, but essential for our quality of life, include:

  • safety
  • financial security
  • love
  • friendship


What factors are most important in being happy?

2010 study by Princeton University indicated that a higher income resulted in greater sense of security and contentment only to a certain point. The study indicated that beyond $75,000, higher income is neither the road to experienced happiness nor the road to the relief of unhappiness or stress.

“It gets to the point where you have enough money to be happy to cover most of life's expenses, most of the stresses are taken off the table, and then increased income actually starts to get your happiness back down again,” Dr Demaio explained.

So, if being rich doesn’t make us happy what does? According to Dr Demaio these factors are key to happiness:

  • time with family and friends
  • meaningful connections with friends and colleagues
  • good physical and emotional health
  • having a sense of purpose and meaning
  • feeling connected to community
  • feeling independent and free to make informed choices


How does happiness in Australia compare to other nations and what can we learn from this?

“Here in Australia we do have higher levels of inequality, unfortunately, and the evidence suggests we work some of the longest hours in the world. So, I think we've probably still got a little way to go to work out the work life balance, myself included. But we're not bad [according to] the global rankings,” said Dr Demaio.

According to an Ipsos survey, Australia has dropped to 6th on the global happiness scale since the COVID-19 pandemic started. Australians who took part in the survey were given 29 options, and they ranked the following five as the sources of “greatest happiness”:

  • My relationship with partner/spouse (47%)
  • My health/physical well-being (43%)
  • My children (42%)
  • My living conditions (39%)
  • Feeling my life has meaning (38%)


What can we learn about happiness from our experience of the pandemic?

"What's really got us through COVID are our loved ones," said Dr Demaio. "It's the connection to community. I think these are much more important than the kind of material perks that really drive many of us.

“COVID really reminded me of the importance of the non-financial things in life that give you a great sense of meaning. Now is a good time to reflect on that. As we return to normal, what are some of those things we want to hold on to, and what's kept us going over the last 12 months that we want to take forward?"

Beyond an income that enables us to feel financially secure, the really meaningful factors in being happy are our personal relationships and our sense of purpose.

Take time to reflect on what has given you a sense of wellbeing and comfort throughout the pandemic, and make these part of your life as we return to normal. That might be dinner with family, regular Zoom calls, meditation, outdoor walks or listening to music.

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Artwork by Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022
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Artwork Credit: Dexx (Gunditjmara/Boon Wurrung) ‘Mobs Coming Together’ 2022, acrylic on canvas. Learn more about this artwork.