Happiness Surveys and Public Policy: What’s the Use?

70 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2012

Date Written: May 2012


This Article provides a comprehensive, critical overview of proposals to use happiness surveys for steering public policy. Happiness or “subjective well-being” surveys ask individuals to rate their present happiness, life-satisfaction, affective state, etc. A massive literature now engages in such surveys or correlates survey responses with individual attributes. And, increasingly, scholars argue for the policy relevance of happiness data: in particular, as a basis for calculating aggregates such as “gross national happiness,” or for calculating monetary equivalents for non-market goods based on coefficients in a happiness equation.

But is individual well-being equivalent to happiness? The happiness literature tends to blur or conflate important concepts: well-being, subjective well-being, happiness, utility, satisfaction. A preference-realization account of well-being denies the equivalence of happiness and welfare, since someone can have preferences for non-mental attributes, such as health, autonomy, goal-fulfillment, knowledge or the quality of her relationships.

It is critical, therefore, to differentiate two potential policy roles for happiness surveys. First, the survey response may provide prima facie evidence of the respondent’s preference-utility: the extent to which her preferences are realized. Second, it may indicate her experience-utility: the quality of her mental states. The Article clarifies these two, very different, ideas. It then criticizes, in turn, the preference-utility and the experience-utility defenses of the policy relevance of happiness surveys. Enthusiasm about happiness is premature.

Keywords: happiness, subjective well-being, SWB, surveys, satisfaction, preferences, preference-utility, experience-utility, social welfare, welfare economics, welfarism, wellbeing, cost-benefit analysis, welfare, hedonism, utility

JEL Classification: D03, D63, D69, D81, I18, K32, Q58

Suggested Citation

Adler, Matthew D., Happiness Surveys and Public Policy: What’s the Use? (May 2012). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 62, 2013 Forthcoming; U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 12-36; U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 12-23. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2076539

Matthew D. Adler (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

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