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Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being

  • Erzo F.P. Luttmer

This paper investigates whether individuals feel worse off when others around them earn more. In other words, do people care about relative position and does lagging behind the Joneses' diminish well-being? To answer this question, I match individual-level panel data containing a number of indicators of well-being to information about local average earnings. I find that, controlling for an individual's own income, higher earnings of neighbors are associated with lower levels of self-reported happiness. The data's panel nature and rich set of measures of well-being and behavior indicate that this association is not driven by selection or by changes in the way people define happiness. There is suggestive evidence that the negative effect of increases in neighbors' earnings on own well-being is most likely caused by interpersonal preferences people having utility functions that depend on relative consumption in addition to absolute consumption.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 10667.

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Date of creation: Aug 2004
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Publication status: published as Luttmer, Erzo F. P. "Neighbors As Negatives: Relative Earnings And Well-Being," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2005, v120(3,Aug), 963-1002.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:10667
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