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Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys

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  • Daniel J. Benjamin
  • Ori Heffetz
  • Miles S. Kimball
  • Alex Rees-Jones

Abstract

Are subjective well-being (SWB) measures a good empirical proxy for utility? We evaluate one necessary assumption: that people’s preferences coincide with what they predict will maximize their SWB. Our method is to present survey respondents with hypothetical scenarios and elicit both choice and predicted SWB rankings of two alternatives. While choice and predicted SWB rankings usually coincide, we find systematic reversals. Furthermore, we identify factors—such as predicted sense of purpose, control over one‘s life, family happiness, and social status—that help explain choice controlling for predicted SWB. We explore how our findings vary with the SWB measure and the choice situation.

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Bibliographic Info

Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 16489.

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Date of creation: Oct 2010
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Publication status: published as Benjamin, Daniel J., Ori Heffetz, Miles S. Kimball, and Alex Rees-Jones. 2012. What Do You Think Would Make You Happier? What Do You Think You Would Choose? American Economic Review, 102(5): 2083–2110. [SSRN version] An older version circulated as Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys. [Web Appendix] [NBER WP w16489 at SSRN]
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16489

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  1. Erzo F.P. Luttmer, 2004. "Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being," NBER Working Papers 10667, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Finkelstein, Amy & Luttmer, Erzo F. P. & Notowidigdo, Matthew J., 2008. "What Good Is Wealth without Health? The Effect of Health on the Marginal Utility of Consumption," Working Paper Series rwp08-036, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  3. Easterlin, Richard A., 1995. "Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 27(1), pages 35-47, June.
  4. Alois Stutzer, 2007. "Limited Self-Control, Obesity and the Loss of Happiness," Working papers 2007/07, Faculty of Business and Economics - University of Basel.
  5. Alois Stutzer & Bruno S. Frey, . "Stress That Doesn't Pay: The Commuting Paradox," IEW - Working Papers 151, Institute for Empirical Research in Economics - University of Zurich.
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  8. Yoshiro Tsutsui & Miles Kimball & Fumio Ohtake, 2007. "Koizumi Carried the Day: Did the Japanese Election Results Make People Happy and Unhappy?," ISER Discussion Paper 0695, Institute of Social and Economic Research, Osaka University.
  9. Kahneman, Daniel & Wakker, Peter P & Sarin, Rakesh, 1997. "Back to Bentham? Explorations of Experienced Utility," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 112(2), pages 375-405, May.
  10. Stevenson, Betsey & Wolfers, Justin, 2009. "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," CEPR Discussion Papers 7311, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  11. Welsch, Heinz, 2009. "Implications of happiness research for environmental economics," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(11), pages 2735-2742, September.
  12. David G. Blanchflower & Andrew J. Oswald, 2004. "Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study," NBER Working Papers 10499, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. Miles Kimball & Helen Levy & Fumio Ohtake & Yoshiro Tsutsui, 2006. "Unhappiness after Hurricane Katrina," NBER Working Papers 12062, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  14. Bruno Frey & Simon Luechinger & Alois Stutzer, 2009. "The life satisfaction approach to valuing public goods: The case of terrorism," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 138(3), pages 317-345, March.
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Cited by:
  1. Daniel J. Benjamin & Ori Heffetz & Miles S. Kimball & Alex Rees-Jones, 2012. "What Do You Think Would Make You Happier? What Do You Think You Would Choose?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 102(5), pages 2083-2110, August.
  2. Robert J. B. Goudie & Sach Mukherjee & Jan-Emmanuel De Neve & Andrew J. Oswald & Stephen Wu, 2011. "Happiness as a Driver of Risk-Avoiding Behavior," CESifo Working Paper Series 3451, CESifo Group Munich.
  3. Yew-Kwang Ng, 2011. "Happiness Is Absolute, Universal, Ultimate, Unidimensional, Cardinally Measurable and Interpersonally Comparable: A Basis for the Environmentally Responsible Happy Nation Index," Development Research Unit Working Paper Series 16-11, Monash University, Department of Economics.
  4. B. Douglas Bernheim & Daniel Bjorkegren & Jeffrey Naecker & Antonio Rangel, 2013. "Do Hypothetical Choices and Non-Choice Ratings Reveal Preferences?," NBER Working Papers 19269, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. repec:hal:wpaper:halshs-00561867 is not listed on IDEAS

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