Life, liberty, and the pursuit of $60,000 a year?

It appears that if your goal in life is to experience a pretty consistent sense of present “happiness,” then you should try to work your way into the top 20% of income earners in the United States and make $60,000 a year.

And $60,000 is the sweet spot.

If you make less than this, then you might tend to report measurably less present happiness to surveyors. If you make more, you’re unlikely to report greater present happiness.

Why do I keep using the word “present” in front of “happiness”? Because psychological researchers distinguish between how we report our present experiential sense of happiness to them and how we report how happy our memories of past events are. Human beings appear to have two selves—the self in the present and the narrated or constructed self based on our (selective) memories of the past. Both “selves” can be measured for happiness by researchers, and it is important, for survey purposes, to keep them separate (see below video). What researchers have found is that fabulously rich people, based on their memories of past events, report happier life experiences than people making $60,000, but their sense of actual day-to-day happiness tends to be the same as those making $60,000.

This makes sense. If, afterall, you ask a millionaire (who spent the summer vacationing in Italy) and a person making $60,000 a year (who stayed home for the summer) how their June was, one is likely to report, “Great,” the other, “Okay.” But if you ask them about their state of present happiness, the survey surprise is that you tend to get the same answer—something along the lines of “Comfy.” (Again, see the below video for a fuller explanation of your present experiential self v. your memory-based narrative self).

In any event, a recent blog post at the “My Money Blog” details the “happiness equals making $60,000 a year” idea.

But I’ve got four questions:

  • Why should our present-dwelling experiential self be privileged over our selective memory selves? Maybe how we remember and narrate our past is more important to us than how we experience the present.
  • Is present experiential happiness at 60k the proper goal of life?
  • Are Nietzsche’s comfy “last men” really the most enviable?
  • What if those creators of greater life—and of new things in the world generally—are characterized by mostly present experiential suffering (as birth is characterized by suffering)?

Perhaps the human struggle of birthing something—and narrating our experience of it afterward—is the highest form of ultimate happiness and human expression. In other words, maybe our lives are aesthetic—narrative and art—and, in our self-creation, present happiness is best treated with indifference and sublimated to our visionary project. Or perhaps it is an existence focused on God or the ethical life that makes for true happiness. Or maybe, just maybe, the sleepy and serene Hindu cow, safe on its balmy hill, is the happiest of beings in the universe, and should be taken as our model for human aspiration (one moo for happy; two for unhappy).

Put simply, might it be the case that, before you make your subjective and present state of happiness the measure of how much income you should try to earn (either in going up or coming down), that you at least first ask yourself these two questions:

  • Which is more important to me—the subjective happiness of my present self or the story of my life that I tell myself?
  • Who am I?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Life, liberty, and the pursuit of $60,000 a year?

  1. Speedy G says:

    Concluding paragraph of Zarathustra….

    My suffering and my fellow-suffering- what matter about them! Do I then strive after happiness? I strive after my work!

    Well! The lion hath come, my children are nigh, Zarathustra hath grown ripe, mine hour hath come:-

    This is my morning, my day beginneth: arise now, arise, thou great noontide!”- –

    Thus spake Zarathustra and left his cave, glowing and strong, like a morning sun coming out of gloomy mountains.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Great quote. Thanks for sharing that. I’m reading a lot of Nietzsche right now.


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