Beauty, money and happiness: Which comes first?

April 5, 2011 at 8:01 AM ET

News flash: Attractive people are happier.

And it all boils down to simple economics, say researchers who get paid to study such things.

If you've been blessed with good looks, you're more likely to be blessed with a bigger bank account, according to new research by economists at The University of Texas at Austin, who've made a career out of examining the interplay of looks, success and money.

"Personal beauty raises happiness," said Daniel Hamermesh, a Texas professor who co-authored the study (.pdf file) with Jason Abrevaya. "The majority of beauty's effect on happiness works through its impact on economic outcomes."

In previous research, Hamermesh has established that beautiful people earn more money and marry better-looking and higher-earning spouses than their plain-Jane counterparts.

The study suggests these indirect economic benefits account for nearly half of the additional happiness that good-looking folks report. Women are more likely than men to report that their happiness is more directly affected by beauty than men.

"For men, almost all the effect is indirect  — through beauty raising their earnings, the kind of spouse they can get, their ease of getting loans, etc." Hamermesh said. "For women, however, those indirect effects account for only half the impact of beauty on happiness. The other half is direct. ... Better-looking women just feel happier."

To reach their conclusions, the economists reviewed five large international studies involving nearly 25,000 participants. To quantify beauty, interviewers rated the participants' attractiveness using set guidelines or evaluated their beauty from pictures.