Five large surveys offer consistent evidence that the amount of money a person makes is strongly tied to how they feel about themselves. The findings were published in the journal Emotion.
Past research has persistently shown that people with greater income feel more positively about their life situations. But the findings have been mixed when it comes to the way a person’s earnings influence their feelings about themselves. A research team led by Eddie M. W. Tong aimed to address this gap in the literature, by examining how income correlates with a range of self-regard emotions. Since greater income has been linked to a higher sense of control, the authors reason that it should also be associated with a more positive self-view.
Tong and his colleagues conducted a series of studies using five large datasets involving participants from 166 countries.
The researchers first analyzed data from three similar studies conducted among two Singaporean samples and one Japanese sample, involving a total of over 2,500 participants. All three studies included measures of income and had participants report how often they felt various positive emotions (e.g., pride, contentment) and negative emotions (e.g., shame, fear).
In all three studies, the researchers uncovered a positive link between income and positive self-regard emotions and a negative link between income and negative self-regard emotions. In the third study, it was additionally found that sense of self-control mediated the relationship between income and positive self-regard emotions — with higher income predicting a greater sense of control, and a greater sense of control then predicting positive self-regard emotions.
The researchers next replicated this effect among an American sample and additionally shed light on the temporal relationship between income and self-regard. The researchers examined data from the second and third waves of the Midlife in the United States survey. Here, the researchers found that greater income at the second wave predicted greater positive self-regard emotions and lower negative self-regard emotions at the third wave — which was conducted ten years later.
“These findings are the strongest evidence to our knowledge that current income is uniquely predictive of future emotions (albeit only self-regard emotions),” the study authors share, “because they followed the same individuals across many years and controlled for preexisting tendencies to experience the same emotion.”
Furthermore, sense of control again played a mediating role. Income at the first wave predicted a greater sense of control at the second wave, which in turn predicted higher levels of positive self-regard emotions and lower negative self-regard emotions. When the researchers tested the relationship in the opposite direction — to see whether self-regard emotions at Wave 2 would predict income at Wave 3 — the results were not significant.
Finally, data from the Gallup World Poll, a survey that included 166 countries and over 1.5 million participants, further supported this positive link between income and self-regard. The poll did not include assessments of positive self-regard emotions but did find that income was negatively linked to negative self-regard emotions — suggesting that respondents with greater income were less likely to have a negative view of the self.
Importantly, this consistent link between income and emotions appeared to be particular to self-regard emotions. In all studies, the links between income and emotions about others (e.g., compassion, anger) were much weaker and inconsistent. Moreover, a meta-analysis compiling the datasets found that the associations between income and self-regard emotions were small yet steady, while the relationships between income and other emotions were not supported.
“Assuming that income has a causal impact on emotions, our findings suggest that at the individual level, earning more means a greater tendency to feel emotions such as pride and satisfaction and earning less means more sadness and shame,” Tong and colleagues say, “but neither would make a difference to one’s capacity for gratitude and compassion, as well as anger.”
The study, “Income Robustly Predicts Self-Regard Emotions”, was authored by Eddie M. W. Tong, Paul Reddish, Vincent Y. S. Oh, Weiting Ng, Eri Sasaki, Elizabeth D. A. Chin, and Ed Diener.