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Measuring and Understanding Subjective Well-Being


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  • John F. Helliwell
  • Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh


Increasing attention is being paid in academic, policy, and public arenas to subjective measures of well-being. This promising trend represents a shift towards measuring positive outcomes in psychology and greater realism in the study of economic behaviour. After a general review of past and potential uses for subjective well-being data, and a discussion of why some economists have previously been sceptical of SWB data, we present global and Canadian examples from our own research to illustrate what can be learned. Differences in subjective well-being will be shown to be large and sustained across individuals, communities, provinces and nations. Although the patterns of subjective well-being are very different across Canada than across the world, we show that in both cases the differences can be fairly well accounted for by the same set of life circumstances. Our examples of policy-relevant research findings include new accountings of the differences in individual-level SWB assessments around the world and across Canada. These highlight the importance of social factors whose role has otherwise been hard to quantify in income-equivalent terms.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 15887.

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Date of creation: Apr 2010
Date of revision:
Publication status: published as Measuring and Understanding Subjective Well-Being John F. Helliwell and Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 43, Issue 3, pp. 729-753.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15887

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Cited by:
  1. Christian Kroll, 2011. "Wie wollen wir zukünftig leben? Internationale Erfahrungen bei der Neuvermessung von Fortschritt und Wohlergehen," Working Paper Series of the German Council for Social and Economic Data, German Council for Social and Economic Data (RatSWD) 186, German Council for Social and Economic Data (RatSWD).
  2. Brendan Walsh, 2011. "Well-being and Economic Conditions in Ireland," Working Papers, School Of Economics, University College Dublin 201127, School Of Economics, University College Dublin.
  3. John Helliwell & Shun Wang, 2014. "Weekends and Subjective Well-Being," Social Indicators Research, Springer, Springer, vol. 116(2), pages 389-407, April.
  4. Namrata Chindarkar, 2014. "Is Subjective Well-Being of Concern to Potential Migrants from Latin America?," Social Indicators Research, Springer, Springer, vol. 115(1), pages 159-182, January.
  5. repec:wyi:journl:002134 is not listed on IDEAS
  6. Marie Connolly, 2013. "Some Like It Mild and Not Too Wet: The Influence of Weather on Subjective Well-Being," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, Springer, vol. 14(2), pages 457-473, April.
  7. Stutzer, Alois & Frey, Bruno S., 2012. "Recent Developments in the Economics of Happiness: A Selective Overview," IZA Discussion Papers 7078, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  8. Hau Chyi & Shangyi Mao, 2012. "The Determinants of Happiness of China’s Elderly Population," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, Springer, vol. 13(1), pages 167-185, March.
  9. Dominique M. Gross & John Richards, 2012. "Breaking the Stereotype: Why Urban Aboriginals Score Highly on "Happiness" Measures," C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, C.D. Howe Institute, issue 354, July.
  10. Carlo Klein, 2013. "Social Capital or Social Cohesion: What Matters For Subjective Well-Being?," Social Indicators Research, Springer, Springer, vol. 110(3), pages 891-911, February.


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