Does Money Buy Happiness? Evidence from an Unconditional Cash Transfer in Zambia

Luisa Natali, Social and Economic Policy Unit, UNICEF Office of Research—Innocenti
Sudhanshu Handa, Department of Public Policy and Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Amber Peterman, Social and Economic Policy Unit,

In the past two decades, alternative measures of human progress beyond gross domestic product have gained importance, shifting focus from solely economic output to more holistic measures of well-being. The relationship between happiness and income has been at the center of a vibrant debate, as emotional states are an important determinant of health and social behavior. This study investigated whether a government-run unconditional cash transfer paid directly to women in poor households had an impact on self-reported happiness.

The evaluation was designed as a cluster-randomized controlled trial in rural Zambia across 90 communities. The program led to a 7.5 to 10 percentage point impact on women’s happiness after 36- and 48-months, respectively. In addition, women showed higher overall satisfaction regarding their young children’s well-being, including indicators of satisfaction with their children’s health and positive outlook on their children’s future. Complementary analysis suggests that self-assessed relative poverty (as measured by comparison to other households in the community) is a more important mediator of program effects on happiness than absolute poverty (as measured by household consumption expenditures).

Although typically not the focus of such evaluations, impacts on psychosocial indicators, including happiness, should not be discounted as important outcomes, as they capture different, non-material, holistic aspects of an individual’s overall level of well-being.

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Senior Vice President, International Development