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Kershner: Happiness is yours if the price is right

Mon., Nov. 14, 2011, midnight

Money cannot buy happiness, but $75,000 a year sure helps.

That’s the peak “happiness” number, according to some economists. Surveys have shown that people’s happiness level rises along with their income – but only up to $75,000 per year, where it plateaus.

In other words, a person who makes $75,000 is happier than a person making $25,000 or $50,000 a year. But a person making $100,000 a year or even $200,000 a year remains at the same level of happiness as the person making $75,000.

So the old saying should be revised to this: Money can buy happiness, but don’t pay too much.

(Or to put it metaphorically: Don’t get suckered into overpaying for your happiness at some snooty boutique. Buy it at Grocery Outlet.)

However, this $75,000 number disturbs me on a number of levels. First of all, it makes me even more irked at the wealthiest among us who feel they need to add another few million onto their already existing millions. What’s the point? You’re as happy as you’re ever going to get. Why not stop at $75,000 and leave a little happiness for the rest of us?

Yet here’s the most disturbing thing of all: We happen to live in a county where our per capita income is $24,662. Our median household income is $44,799. The statewide numbers aren’t a whole lot higher (these figures come from the 2010 census).

So, are most of us really that unhappy? And if so, how are we supposed to come close to that magic $75,000 number?

As we live through the aftermath of the Great Recession, those $75,000-a-year jobs are not exactly sprouting up on Craigslist. Maybe the economists who came up with that $75,000 number make that much, since they hold Endowed Chairs of Money-Crunching. But I’m certain that those phone canvassers – the ones who actually polled people about their happiness – aren’t making anywhere near $75,000 a year.

Meanwhile, it galls me all the more when I hear business leaders and politicians complaining that salaries of, for instance, teachers, are too high. The average teacher salary in Washington state is only about two-thirds of the way to Peak Happiness. No wonder teachers feel unappreciated.

Yet this all leads toward another question. Does it really, truly take $75,000 a year to be happy?

Economists say that number is, essentially, the amount it takes to become relatively free of money worries. It’s the amount at which we can do things we enjoy with our friends and families without fear of financial doom. Put simply, $75,000 is a number equal to “enough.”

As someone who has never come close to that Perfect Happiness income number, I can attest to the obvious fact that, yes, of course, a person can be happy on far less. There are certain saints who are perfectly happy with nothing.

Yet I won’t insult you by pretending that $75,000 a year wouldn’t boost my happiness level quite nicely. I’m certainly willing to try it and find out. I’m sure I’d feel even happier right now if I were planning a nice vacation to New Zealand.

Unfortunately, like millions of others in this economy, my income level is poised to sink, not leap. I’ll be keeping tabs on my Happiness Quotient to see if this causes me to feel sadder next year. I’m pretty sure it will, on the days when my Visa bill arrives, but on every other day, I’ll just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, like everyone else, I can take solace in one fact. At least I’m not one of those people making $500,000 a year. What a sad, sad waste of $425,000 that must be.

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