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Building a Better Theory of Well-Being

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  • Easterlin, Richard A.

    () (University of Southern California)

Abstract

What do social surveys of life cycle experience tell us about the determinants of subjective well-being? First, that the psychologists’ setpoint model is wrong. Life events in the nonpecuniary domain, such as marriage, divorce, and physical disability, have a lasting effect on well-being, and do not simply deflect the average person temporarily above or below a setpoint given by genetics and personality. Second, mainstream economists’ inference that in the pecuniary domain “more is better,” based on revealed preference theory, is wrong. An increase in income, and thus in the goods at one’s disposal, does not bring with it a lasting increase in well-being, because of the negative effect on utility of hedonic adaptation and social comparison. The utility anticipated ex ante from an increase in consumption turns out ex post to be less than expected, as one adapts to the new level of living, and as the living levels of others improve correspondingly. A better theory of well-being builds on the evidence that adaptation and social comparison affect utility more in pecuniary than nonpecuniary domains. The failure of individuals to anticipate that these influences disproportionately undermine utility in the pecuniary domain leads to an excessive allocation of time to pecuniary goals at the expense of nonpecuniary goals, such as family life and health, and reduces well-being. There is need to devise policies that will yield better-informed individual preferences, and thereby increase individual and societal subjective well-being.

Suggested Citation

  • Easterlin, Richard A., 2003. "Building a Better Theory of Well-Being," IZA Discussion Papers 742, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  • Handle: RePEc:iza:izadps:dp742
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Cited by:

    1. Di Tella, Rafael & Haisken-De New, John & MacCulloch, Robert, 2010. "Happiness adaptation to income and to status in an individual panel," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 76(3), pages 834-852, December.
    2. MacKerron, George & Mourato, Susana, 2009. "Life satisfaction and air quality in London," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(5), pages 1441-1453, March.
    3. Sekulova, Filka & van den Bergh, Jeroen C.J.M., 2016. "Floods and happiness: Empirical evidence from Bulgaria," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 126(C), pages 51-57.
    4. Peiro, Amado, 2006. "Happiness, satisfaction and socio-economic conditions: Some international evidence," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 348-365, April.
    5. Golden, Lonnie & Wiens-Tuers, Barbara, 2006. "To your happiness? Extra hours of labor supply and worker well-being," Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics (formerly The Journal of Socio-Economics), Elsevier, vol. 35(2), pages 382-397, April.
    6. Vendrik, Maarten C.M., 2013. "Adaptation, anticipation and social interaction in happiness: An integrated error-correction approach," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 105(C), pages 131-149.
    7. Gruen, Carola & Klasen, Stephan, 2012. "Has transition improved well-being?," Economic Systems, Elsevier, vol. 36(1), pages 11-30.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    health; living level; subjective well-being; marital status; aspirations;

    JEL classification:

    • D60 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - General
    • I10 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - General
    • I31 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - General Welfare, Well-Being
    • J12 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Marriage; Marital Dissolution; Family Structure
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification

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