This blog post was updated in 2022
You are probably already familiar with the 2014 happiness salary study that said that once you reach a yearly income of $75,000 your happiness won't increase much by making more money.
In 2018, research from Purdue University found that for an individual, "the ideal income point is $95,000 for life evaluation and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being." The minimum salary to be happy varies depending on where you live, and if you are in the United States you can find the amount for your State here.
Since I live in Los Angeles, I checked the number for California, and according to the data, as of 2022 that magic number is $149,310. Note that in 2014 it was $95,325.
Let me repeat it: according to research, in order to be happy in California you have to make an annual salary of $149,310 or more as an individual. How much money do you make?
Putting the Numbers in Perspective
Money is something a lot of job seekers and career changers worry about: I often talk to people who are afraid of taking a financial hit if they change jobs, or if they start their own business.
If you feel conflicted and unsure about what to do professionally, it might be that what is holding you back are financial considerations - for example, the work that you feel called to pursue might not pay enough, especially for the first few years.
While it is helpful to know that you are not "crazy," or "greedy," or "spiritually unenlightened" if you live in California and feel stressed about making less than $150,000, it might be helpful to know just how many people actually do make the "happiness" salary. I did some research, and while I couldn't find the exact percentile of people at this income level, I found some statistics on household income, average salary, and median income in the state.
According to the latest numbers from ZipRecruiter, top earners (earners in the 90th percentile) make at least $98,986 annually in California. So let's make our math easy and use 10% as our number (even though it's less), and say that 1 in 10 Californians earn the happiness salary. What should we do with this data? Usually, career blogs focus on how you can achieve that income; what I always find missing from this conversation about happiness is that if we take the happiness study at face value, we live in a society were 9 out of 10 people are not making the amount of money needed for happiness, nor statistically will be able to. Even accounting for differences in cities, the majority of the population does not meet the minimum salary. So when we focus on just the individual, aka, you should feel happy at $95K, or you should try to make six figures, we are really talking to just 1 out of 10 people, and we are also implying you will not be happy unless you are in one of the professions that will enable you to make that kind of money. If 9 out of 10 people do not make the "happiness" salary, it stands to reason that most jobs or businesses are not adequately providing financially for Californians. What do we do now?
A Different Lens
While it's great to individually try to make more than $149K per year, we are missing out on what is a much more important issue: what do we do as a community when the majority of people cannot get to the magic "happiness" salary? Do we as a society have a responsibility to make sure everyone receives the money needed to be happy? Do we refuse to buy into the definition of happiness that makes $149K necessary to achieve it? Are we always moving the target so that only few of us can achieve happiness?
Shifting the conversation is key to finding your own professional happiness.
If you are drawn to and inspired by professions that on average pay $100K or more, by all means go for it. I am all about making all the money you deserve and can achieve.
But what if you are drawn to a profession that pays less? Statistically speaking, that is more likely. What should you do then?
That might be why you feel stuck: you know what you would like to do, but it doesn't pay enough. There is a reason why in hostage situations several countries make it illegal to pay kidnappers: they recognize that if you play by the kidnappers' rules, they will keep coming back for more. This is your hostage situation: it's your money or your life. What are you going to do about it?
If you are called to work in professions that pay less that your state's "happiness" salary, I invite you to become very aware of the beliefs and pressures you are giving power to and to be very skeptical of the whole premises that lead to the conclusion that $150K a year is necessary to be happy. And I invite you to approach your dilemma not just from an individual perspective, but from a commitment to breaking this cycle for all of us. Where can you start?
Here are some suggestions:
- Break away from equating all wealth with money. Here's an interesting TEDx Talk and transcript on multiple forms of wealth. What other types of wealth are important to you? Can your profession provide you with them?
- Learn about and connect with people who are researching, building, and working in alternative types of businesses, including alternative financial distribution models such as workers' coops, B Corps, and other forms of social entrepreneurship. Could having more meaning at work, and feeling a stronger sense of ownership, help you feel satisfied even if you are not making as much money?
Psst: it might also help you make more money 😉
- Build your own community, and heal your relationship to giving and receiving. Do you think you need money for everything? Be present to all you are given every day, and bring more gratitude and abundance in your life right now.
- Be of service. We know from many studies - and countless spiritual teachings - than aligning yourself with a greater purpose + helping others goes a long way to contribute to our happiness. Do you have a bigger purpose? And are you living it?
- What can you do to change the rules that are holding you back? If the cost of buying a home is your main worry, can you become active in the fight for affordable housing, or join a group of like-minded thinkers who are building a community living space? Years ago in San Francisco I met a woman who couldn't afford to pay for childcare. At the time it was almost $2,000 per month in her area. So she got together with other parents and they formed a coop complete with rules and regulations so they could all help each other take care of their children without going broke. Who can you partner up with or support in order to change the system?
I founded Repurpose Your Purpose to break the insanity of thinking career problems should only be solved at the individual level. While I work a lot with my clients on belief systems, communication, and more, it's also important to focus on the overall wellbeing of our workplaces and on how we financially support each other.
Repurpose Your Purpose is based on inner and outer transformation, and that includes helping you to tap into the confidence and passion to transform the communities and environments that you are part of.
Honor yourself by taking on a bigger game: the game to be happy professionally while contributing to the wellbeing of your community. Think outside the box, step into the issues that matter to you the most, and let yourself be happy now, not just when you reach the "happiness" salary.