Numerous studies agree that income inequality, rather than absolute income, is an important predictor of happiness. However, its specific role has been controversial. We argue that income inequality and happiness should exhibit an inverted U-shaped relationship due to the dynamic competing process between two effects: when income inequality is relatively low, the signal effect will be the dominating factor, in which individuals feel happy because they consider income inequality as a signal of social mobility and expect upward mobility; however, if income inequality level increases beyond a critical point, the jealousy effect will become the dominating factor, in which individuals tend to be unhappy because they are disillusioned about the prospect of upward mobility and jealous of their wealthier peers. This hypothesis is tested in a longitudinal dataset on the United States and a cross-national dataset on several European countries. In both datasets, the Gini coefficient (a common index of a society's income inequality) and its quadratic term were significant predictors of personal happiness. Further examinations of the quadratic relationships showed that the signal effect was only presented in the European data, while the jealousy effect was presented in both datasets. These findings shed new light on our understanding of the relationship between income inequality and personal happiness.
Yu, Z., & Wang, F. (2017). Income inequality and happiness: An inverted U-shaped curve. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(NOV). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02052