Most Choose Cash Over Happiness, Study Shows

happiness and money
Most people would rather take a high-paying job with longer work hours than a lower-paying job that would make them happier, a new study shows. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Given the choice, most people would take a high-paying job with longer work hours over a good-paying job with reasonable demands on their time, a new study shows.

In fact, most of the study participants said they'd choose a high-paying job even if it only permitted them to get six hours of sleep a night and would bring them less happiness overall, the researchers said.

In the study, 2,699 participants were asked to consider a variety of scenarios: One scenario involved choosing between a job that paid $80,000 a year with reasonable work hours that would permit 7.5 hours a night of sleep, or a higher-paying $140,000-a-year job with long work hours and time for only six hours of sleep. Participants were also asked questions about which option they thought would make them happier.

Despite the probability that the less-demanding, lower-paying job would allow them more sleep,  free time and make them happier overall, participants tended to choose the higher-paying job.

In another scenario, participants had to choose between two options: a salary of 20 percent less than their current salary that would mean a move to the city where your friends live; and a salary of 10 percent more than their current salary that would mean a move to a city where you don't know anyone.

"We found that people make trade-offs between happiness and other things," study researcher Alex Rees-Jones, an economics doctoral student at Cornell, said in a statement. "For example, they explicitly told us in the free response sections that they would be happier one way, but their family would be happier if they took higher-paying options." [Read: Happiest States Are Wealthy and Tolerant]

The findings suggest happiness may not be a person's main goal in life. "You might think of happiness as the ultimate goal that people pursue, but actually, people think of goals like health, family happiness, social status and sense of purpose as sometimes competing with happiness," Rees-Jones said.

When asked whether they would regret any cases where they had a discrepancy between their choice and well-being, 23 percent of participants said yes, with the vast majority saying no. In addition, only 7 percent of participants said they were making a mistake in their choices.

"Overall, this indicates that many are willing to pursue a course that sacrifices happiness in favor of other important goals," said Rees-Jones. "These respondents seem to indicate that maximizing happiness was not perceived to be in their own best interest."

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal American Economic Review.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.