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Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys

Author

Listed:
  • 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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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Rafael Di Tella & Robert J. MacCulloch & Andrew J. Oswald, 2003. "The Macroeconomics of Happiness," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 809-827, November.
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    4. Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2008. "Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 39(1 (Spring), pages 1-102.
    5. Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2009. "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, American Economic Association, vol. 1(2), pages 190-225, August.
    6. Tsutsui, Yoshiro & Kimball, Miles & Ohtake, Fumio, 2010. "Koizumi carried the day: Did the Japanese election results make people happy and unhappy?," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 26(1), pages 12-24, March.
    7. Erzo F. P. Luttmer, 2005. "Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(3), pages 963-1002.
    8. Miles Kimball & Helen Levy & Fumio Ohtake & Yoshiro Tsutsui, 2006. "Unhappiness after Hurricane Katrina," NBER Working Papers 12062, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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    12. 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.
    13. Welsch, Heinz, 2009. "Implications of happiness research for environmental economics," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(11), pages 2735-2742, September.
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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. Andrew E. Clark & Claudia Senik, 2011. "Is Happiness Different From Flourishing? Cross-Country Evidence from the ESS," Revue d'├ęconomie politique, Dalloz, vol. 121(1), pages 17-34.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

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

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