What Do Happiness Data Mean? Theory and Survey Evidence

51 Pages Posted: 18 Feb 2021 Last revised: 18 May 2021

See all articles by Daniel J. Benjamin

Daniel J. Benjamin

Anderson School of Management; USC, Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR); National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); Human Genetics Department, David Geffen School of Medicine

Jakina Debnam Guzman

Amherst College

Ori Heffetz

Cornell University - S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management; The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Department of Economics and Center for Rationality; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Marc Fleurbaey

Paris School of Economics

Miles S. Kimball

University of Colorado Boulder; University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Economics; Center for Economic and Social Research, USC; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Date Written: May 16, 2021

Abstract

What utility notion—e.g., flow/lifetime, self/family-centered—do self-reported well-being (SWB) questions measure? First, we clarify the theoretical assumptions underlying existing applications regarding the (i) life domains, (ii) time horizons, and (iii) other-regarding preferences captured by SWB data. Second, we document inconsistency in assumptions across papers, sometimes using the same SWB dataset. Third, we ask survey respondents what they had in mind regarding (i)–(iii) when answering commonly used—life satisfaction, happiness, ladder—and new SWB questions. We find that respondents’ self-reports differ from researchers’ assumptions, and differ across SWB questions and sociodemographic groups. We outline actionable suggestions for SWB researchers.

Keywords: happiness, life satisfaction, subjective well-being, survey questions

JEL Classification: D69, D90, I31

Suggested Citation

Benjamin, Daniel J. and Benjamin, Daniel J. and Debnam Guzman, Jakina and Heffetz, Ori and Fleurbaey, Marc and Kimball, Miles S., What Do Happiness Data Mean? Theory and Survey Evidence (May 16, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3776018 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3776018

Daniel J. Benjamin

Anderson School of Management ( email )

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USC, Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR) ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

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Human Genetics Department, David Geffen School of Medicine ( email )

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Jakina Debnam Guzman

Amherst College ( email )

P.O. Box 5000
Amherst, MA 01002-5000
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.jakinaguzman.com

Ori Heffetz (Contact Author)

Cornell University - S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management ( email )

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Ithaca, NY 14853
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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Department of Economics and Center for Rationality

Mount Scopus
Jerusalem, Jerusalem 91905
Israel

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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HOME PAGE: http://www.nber.org/~heffetz

Marc Fleurbaey

Paris School of Economics ( email )

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France

Miles S. Kimball

University of Colorado Boulder ( email )

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Boulder, CO 80309
United States
303.492.8295 (Phone)
303.492.8960 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.colorado.edu/Economics/people/faculty/kimball.html

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Department of Economics ( email )

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Center for Economic and Social Research, USC ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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