Higher Salary Trumps Sleep, But May Not Make You Happier

Oct 25, 2011 2:17pm

Do people choose what would make them happier? Would more money but with less sleep make you happier? A group of economists found that research participants chose what they thought would make them happier 83 percent of the time, with the majority choosing less sleep for a higher salary.

The group from Cornell University and the University of Michigan posed 13 scenarios to 2,699 people, including this question:

Say you have to decide between two new jobs. The jobs are exactly the same in almost every way, but have different work hours and pay different amounts.

Option 1: A job paying $80,000 per year. The hours for this job are reasonable, and you would be able to get about 7.5 hours of sleep on the average work night.

Option 2: A job paying $140,000 per year. However, this job requires you to go to work at unusual hours, and you would only be able to sleep around 6 hours on the average work night.

The paper, first reported by the Washington Post, studied three groups of people: 1,066 patients at a doctor’s waiting room in Denver, 1,000 adults across the country by telephone and 633 Cornell students. The American Economic Review will publish the paper.

Ori Heffetz, a Cornell economics professor who presents the paper at UCLA on Tuesday, said the most surprising finding for him was that “people’s choices seemed to coincide with their happiness predictions least frequently for what they thought were important life decisions.”

Among the respondents in Denver, 58 percent chose option one and also thought more sleep would make them happier, while 29 percent chose option two and said the higher salary would make them happier. However, 12 percent ranked option one (sleep) above option two (income) when asked what would make them happier; but they said they would most likely choose option two. Only one percent said they would choose sleep but thought they’d be happier with income.

Daniel Benjamin,  economics professor at Cornell, said one of the most interesting study findings is there are systematic differences between what people think would make them happiest and what they would choose. Many researchers had believed it was obvious that people would choose what they think would make them happiest.

When asked which options they would choose, Heffetz said he would choose the higher salary because he typically needs less than six hours of sleep a night. Benjamin said it was a “tough” question, but he would choose the job that afforded more sleep.

“I don’t think I could survive on 6 hours of sleep at unusual hours,” he wrote in an email. “I need at least 8, preferably more.”

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