July 1, 2022

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What salary will make you happy?

Written by Technically Media CEO Chris Wink, Technical.ly’s Culture Builder newsletter features tips on growing powerful teams and dynamic workplaces. Below is the latest edition we published. Sign up to get the next one.


Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were both attending a billionaire’s lavish party, the story goes.

Vonnegut goes: “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?”

Heller says: “I’ve got something he can never have.”

Vonnegut responds: “What on earth could that be, Joe?”

And Heller goes: “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

Lots of research shows money only buys happiness up until a point. An influential 2010 study showed that increased compensation predicted an improvement of a person’s emotional well-being only up until a range between $60,000 and $75,000. Other research argues life satisfaction taps out around $100,000, and begins to reverse at around $105,000. Make more money, and add stress and lifestyle changes that will erode any gain from better money.

Obvious differences persist: your lifestyle, obligations and the stage of your career. Live modestly in a low-cost place early in your career and that number might be different than if you have finer tastes in an expensive place with a family to support. Also, clearly the work you do matters: Do you do something you love, or something that makes you grit your teeth?

Software salaries have felt like a special exception. A technical skills shortage has allowed tech workers to negotiate for both higher wages and lower stress. It’s foolish, though, to lose sight of the truest point: Money is a tool, until you allow it to become your master. As millions of Americans reevaluate their priorities, wages are hot, especially in competitive fields like tech. Salary increases do improve our work satisfaction, especially when we know they’re larger than our coworkers — but that satisfaction fades quickly, according a 2018 study.

Think of the last raise you got. It probably felt good that week. How long did that last?

For company culture builders, the lesson is crucial, as one analyst put it: “Money is a very expensive substitute for genuine morale-building.”

You must stay competitive to attract and retain great people. There are limits, though. Nearly all professionals able to read this in a safe and comfortable environment on high-speed internet are in a privileged position. Instead, we want to work somewhere we believe in, with flexibility and camaraderie that supports our lifestyle choices. The question we all have to answer for ourselves is then what is enough?

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What salary will make you happy?