brookings | Many scholars have argued that once “basic needs” have been met, higher income is no longer associated with higher in subjective well-being. We assess the validity of this claim in comparisons of both rich and poor countries, and also of rich and poor people within a country. Analyzing multiple datasets, multiple definitions of “basic needs” and multiple questions about well-being, we find no support for this claim. The relationship between well-being and income is roughly linear-log and does not diminish as incomes rise. If there is a satiation point, we are yet to reach it.
In 1974 Richard Easterlin famously posited that increasing average income did not raise average well-being, a claim that became known as the Easterlin Paradox. However, in recent years new and more comprehensive data has allowed for greater testing of Easterlin’s claim. Studies by us and others have pointed to a robust positive relationship between well-being and income across countries and over time (Deaton, 2008; Stevenson and Wolfers, 2008; Sacks, Stevenson, and Wolfers, 2013). Yet, some researchers have argued for a modified version of Easterlin’s hypothesis, acknowledging the existence of a link between income and well-being among those whose basic needs have not been met, but claiming that beyond a certain income threshold, further income is unrelated to well-being.
The existence of such a satiation point is claimed widely, although there has been no formal statistical evidence presented to support this view. For example Diener and Seligman (2004, p. 5) state that “there are only small increases in well-being” above some threshold. While Clark, Frijters and Shields (2008, p. 123) state more starkly that “greater economic prosperity at some point ceases to buy more happiness,” a similar claim is made by Di Tella and MacCulloch (2008, p. 17): “once basic needs have been satisfied, there is full adaptation to further economic growth.” The income level beyond which further income no longer yields greater well-being is typically said to be somewhere between $8,000 and $25,000. Layard (2003, p. 17) argues that “once a country has over $15,000 per head, its level of happiness appears to be independent of its income;” while in subsequent work he argued for a $20,000 threshold (Layard, 2005 p. 32-33). Frey and Stutzer (2002, p. 416) claim that “income provides happiness at low levels of development but once a threshold (around $10,000) is reached, the average income level in a country has little effect on average subjective well-being.”
Many of these claims, of a critical level of GDP beyond which happiness and GDP are no longer linked, come from cursorily examining plots of well-being against the level of per capita GDP. Such graphs show clearly that increasing income yields diminishing marginal gains in subjective well-being. However this relationship need not reach a point of nirvana beyond which further gains in well-being are absent. For instance Deaton (2008) and Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) find that the well-being–income relationship is roughly a linear-log relationship, such that, while each additional dollar of income yields a greater increment to measured happiness for the poor than for the rich, there is no satiation point.