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The Thinner Your Wallet, the Bigger Your Sense of Awe

New research finds people on different ends of the economic spectrum find happiness in different ways.

The question is an eternal one, but it is particularly relevant during the holiday season: Can money buy happiness?

New research offers a nuanced answer: it depends on what, exactly, brings you joy.

"What seems to be the case is that your wealth predisposes you to different kinds of happiness," lead author Paul Piff, a psychologist at the University of California–Irvine, said in announcing the results.

He reports wealthier people find joy "in their accomplishments, status, and individual achievements," while the less-well-off find it "in their relationships—their ability to care for and connect with others."

Reflecting that difference, a large national survey finds poorer people are more likely to report they regularly experience compassion, love, and awe. It appears being overwhelmed by wonder is easier once you've distanced yourself from egotistic concerns.

The study, published in the journal Emotion, featured 1,519 participants, taken from a pool that was representative of the United States' population. All reported their annual household income by placing it in one of 19 categories ranging from under $5,000 to more than $175,000.

They were then presented with 21 statements, which were designed to measure their tendency to experience seven distinct positive emotions. These included amusement ("Many things are funny to me"), compassion ("Nurturing others gives me a warm feeling inside"), pride ("It feels good to know people look up to me"), and love ("I develop strong emotions towards people I can rely on"). They responded to each using a scale of one (strongly disagree) to seven (strongly agree).

People from higher-income households scored higher on pride, amusement, and contentment. But, by their own estimates, they scored lower on compassion. (The one measure that was unaffected by social class was enthusiasm.)

"We also found that social class negatively predicted love—the first demonstration that lower-class individuals are more prone to positive feelings of attachment and emotional intimacy," the researchers write.

Furthermore, "lower-class individuals reported experiencing more awe than their upper-class counterparts," they add. "This is intriguing, given findings indicating that upper-class individuals are more prone to narcissism—self-regarding tendencies that may rein in propensities towards awe."

These results held true even after taking into account a variety of factors that could impact happiness, including age, gender, religiosity, and political ideology.

The findings raise many interesting questions. Do people who are driven by self-centered emotions as pride strive harder to earn more? Are different values typically taught in wealthy and less-wealthy households? Or do humans instinctively search for happiness, and find it wherever they can?

"Pride and contentment may reflect upper-class individuals' desire for independence and self-sufficiency," Piff and co-author Jake Moskowitz conclude. "Increased love and compassion may help lower-class individuals form more harmonious, interdependent bonds to help cope with their more threatening environment."

Or as Porgy puts it in the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess: "I got plenty of nothin', and nothin's plenty for me."