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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.

Suggested Citation

  • Daniel J. Benjamin & Ori Heffetz & Miles S. Kimball & Alex Rees-Jones, 2010. "Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys," NBER Working Papers 16489, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:16489
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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. Niklas Scheuer, 2020. "Do people choose what makes them happy and how do they decide at all? A theoretical inquiry," Working Papers 2002, Gutenberg School of Management and Economics, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.
    3. Andrew E. Clark & Claudia Senik, 2011. "Is Happiness Different From Flourishing? Cross-Country Evidence from the ESS," Revue d'économie politique, Dalloz, vol. 121(1), pages 17-34.
    4. 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.
    5. Scheuer, Niklas, 2020. "Do people choose what makes them happy and how do they decide at all? A theoretical inquiry," VfS Annual Conference 2020 (Virtual Conference): Gender Economics 224517, Verein für Socialpolitik / German Economic Association.
    6. B. Douglas Bernheim & Daniel Bjorkegren & Jeffrey Naecker & Antonio Rangel, 2013. "Non-Choice Evaluations Predict Behavioral Responses to Changes in Economic Conditions," NBER Working Papers 19269, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Bruce Headey & Gert G. Wagner, 2019. "One Size Does Not Fit All: Alternative Values-Based ‘Recipes’ for Life Satisfaction," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 145(2), pages 581-613, September.
    8. Yew-Kwang Ng, 2011. "Happiness Is Absolute, Universal, Ultimate, Unidimensional, Cardinally Measurable and Interpersonally Comparable: A Basis for the Environmentally Responsible Happy Nation Index," Monash Economics Working Papers 16-11, Monash University, Department of Economics.

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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D03 - Microeconomics - - General - - - Behavioral Microeconomics: Underlying Principles
    • D60 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - General

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