There’s a question I get a lot from people I meet who don’t reside in the islands: ‘What’s it like living in Hawaii?’

The people who ask often seem to be seeking reinforcement for their romantic Hawaii fantasies. They need to know that out there somewhere there are lucky bastards living the dream — frolicking on fine sands, curling in epic waves and rinsing in idyllic waterfalls. And in their vision, Hawaii’s working stiffs seem to be mellow slackers with hours and hours to just stare at nature’s awesome visual displays.

What they don’t realize is that to live out that dreamy vision in real-world Hawaii, most of us would need to discover pots of gold at the end of our rainbows. We’re too busy wrestling with the less-than-romantic reality of exorbitant bills for basic costs: housing, utilities, groceries, insurance and medical care.

Rainbow in Maunaloa, Molokai

A day in the life in Maunaloa, Molokai.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

They don’t really want to hear this, but we face anxieties — despite the sumptuous background — that plenty of neurotic New Yorkers might relate to. The difference is that in New York, the high-energy city that doesn’t sleep, people expect it. But here in Hawaii, we’re supposed to have priorities. We’re supposed to work to live, rather than live to work.

It is a truism to say that money can’t buy us happiness, but up to a certain point it can allow us to care for ourselves and our families, liberate us from some basic stresses, satisfy core needs and live healthier lives — if we make such things priorities. It can also make it easier to take in the grounding nature that surrounds us.

The question is: What is that precise point — how much money does a household need to bring in each year to have a good shot at happiness?

To be clear, I’m not asking about being rich and affording luxuries. And, conversely, we aren’t talking about becoming an off-the-grid adventurer or survivalist. It is about a solid and not particularly materialistic middle-class existence where you can pay your basic bills and perhaps put a little something aside for the future.

Adjusted for the cost of living, the household happiness threshold in Hawaii is tops in the nation, at $122,175.

To anchor the question, I perused an analysis by a well-known psychologist and an economist, both professors at Princeton. The 2010 study based on data from the two previous years found that the threshold for daily happiness in the United States as a whole is a household income of $75,000.

People who earned less were not as happy and people who earned more didn’t get meaningfully more satisfied.

That $75,000 number remains a reference point for prominent media due to a national economy that is only now returning to pre-recession levels on many fronts.

To come up with it, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton examined a huge amount of data from the Gallup organization that was gathered over a two-year period on 450,000 residents of the U.S. Their results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The professors didn’t say that such a household income guarantees happiness, just that income below that bar put individuals in a category of people who were less likely to be happy, and they laid out their reasoning. “Low income exacerbates the emotional pain associated with such misfortunes as divorce, ill health, and being alone,” they wrote. “We conclude that high income buys life satisfaction but not happiness, and that low income is associated both with low life evaluation and low emotional well-being.”

Among the many factors that weighed on households that earned less than $75,000 they cited “the emotional pain associated with ill health,” which often depends on income. (They cited specific examples, like the greater likelihood of headaches in people who earn less.)

Falling below that income line exacerbated an array of “life’s misfortunes,” ranging from health issues like asthma to social ones like divorce and solitude.

On the flip side, many people might assume that more money would bring more happiness, but the Princeton professors didn’t find that to be the case. For people earning more than $75,000, they concluded that the “increased ability to purchase positive experiences is balanced, on average, by some negative effects,” and they cited another study suggesting a “possible association between people who earn high incomes and a reduced ability to savor small pleasures.”

While the study, which came out four years ago, was based on data from 2008 and 2009, the Great Recession has left the median national income below 2008-2009 levels. Here in Hawaii, the median income in 2008 was $67,217, rising almost imperceptibly to $67,492 in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Many costs, of course, have continued to rise.

The question is what does the $75,000 national number mean — when seen through the prism of local costs — for people to have a good chance at happiness in different parts of the country?

The Huffington Post recently published results, based on numbers from the Council for Community and Economic Research, finding that that in Mississippi $65,850 can help facilitate a household’s happiness. In Texas, where a Honolulu family I profiled last week has decided to move, the statewide threshold is $69,600.

Adjusted for the cost of living, the household happiness threshold in Hawaii is tops in the nation, at $122,175.

That amount was on par with the annual income recently calculated by the Wall Street Cheat Sheet, a financial news content partner of USA Today, to “live comfortably” in Hawaii: $122,000.

Hawaii’s median family income for 2012 was $77,781 — or about $45,000 less than the cost of living-adjusted happiness threshold.

Unfortunately for residents here, Hawaii’s median family income for 2012 was $77,781 — or about $45,000 less than the cost of living-adjusted happiness threshold — according to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Obviously, there are many happy households in Hawaii that have far less than $122,000, and there are plenty of wealthy households full of miserable people. But the numbers do offer some guidance.

Interestingly, when I recently created a discussion thread for members of the Civil Beat: Cost of Living Facebook group to ask how much a family needs to earn to enjoy a middle class existence in Hawaii, several people made some calculations and came up with a similar amount.

“For a family of four? Probably $125,000 per year minimum,” wrote Nicolas Hahn. “When you account for the price of housing, food, gas, electricity, and needing to also save to retire, I don’t think it is doable for anything less.”

Hahn said that he used a mortgage affordability calculator from his credit union, and found that to buy a home on Oahu, where the median price has fluctuated between $650,000 to $700,000 this year, a person would need to earn at least $150,000 per year. Owning a home, of course, has long been a key element of America’s middle class dream.

“So, even without factoring in other expenses, I don’t think $125,000 is extraordinary,” he wrote. “That’s just getting by comfortably while renting.”

Veronica Fox came to an identical calculation. “If the person doesn’t have any dependents, any school loans, and is willing to rent (something good, but not super-fabulous) and the person wins a car and doesn’t have any past life issues … and the person is and remains in optimal health, the person needs to take home $125,000 minimum.”

Don’t agree with their calculations? Feel free to do the math, tell us what you think a household needs to bring in, and back it up with data and relevant observations.

And remember, for most people, a middle-class existence involves core expenses that include rent or a mortgage, a vehicle and auto insurance, utility bills, health coverage and co-pays, possible childcare, perhaps paying off student loans and other key expenses. (And to get at the real cost of living issue, let’s avoid including military housing subsidies and the generosity of ohana in this discussion.)

So, how much do you think it costs to have a better shot at happiness in Hawaii?

Join Civil Beat’s Facebook group on the cost of living in Hawaii to continue the conversation and discuss practical and political solutions.

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