Three Critiques of the Econometrics of Happiness: Are We Underestimating the Returns to Education and Income?

Posted: 15 Apr 2019

Date Written: October 1, 2017


A large “happiness”, or life satisfaction, literature in economics makes use of Likert-like scales in assessing survey respondents' cognitive evaluations of their lives. These measures are being used to estimate economic benefits in every empirical field of economics. Typically, analysis of these data have shown remarkably low direct returns of education for improving subjective well-being. In addition, arguably, the inferred impact of material wealth and income using this method is also unexpectedly low as compared with other, social factors, and as compared with economists' prior expectations which underlie, in some sense, support for using GDP as a proxy for more general quality of life goals. Discrete response scales used ubiquitously for the reporting of life satisfaction pose cognitive challenges to survey respondents, so differing cognitive abilities result in different uses of the scale, and thus potential bias in statistical inference. This problem has so far gone unnoticed. An overlooked feature of the distribution of responses to life satisfaction questions is that they exhibit certain enhancements at focal values, in particular at 0, 5, and 10 on the eleven-point scale. In this paper, I investigate the reasons for, and implications of, these response patterns. I use a model to account for the focal-value behavior using a latent variable approach to capture the “internal” cognitive evaluation before it is translated to the discrete scale of a survey question. This approach, supported by other more heuristic ones, finds a significant upward correction for the effects of both education and income on life satisfaction.

Keywords: life satisfaction, happiness, measurement, education, surveys

JEL Classification: I31, D6

Suggested Citation

Barrington-Leigh, Christopher, Three Critiques of the Econometrics of Happiness: Are We Underestimating the Returns to Education and Income? (October 1, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Christopher Barrington-Leigh (Contact Author)

McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy

Charles Meredith House
1130 Pine Avenue West
Montreal, Quebec H3A1A3


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