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Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys

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

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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File URL: http://www.nber.org/papers/w16489.pdf
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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
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
Note: AG PE
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  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Stevenson, Betsey & Wolfers, Justin, 2008. "Economic Growth and Subjective Well-Being: Reassessing the Easterlin Paradox," IZA Discussion Papers 3654, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
  4. Perez-Truglia, Ricardo, 2015. "A Samuelsonian validation test for happiness data," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 49(C), pages 74-83.
  5. DiTella, Rafael & MacCulloch, Robert & Oswald, Andrew J., 1999. "The macroeconomics of happiness," ZEI Working Papers B 03-1999, University of Bonn, ZEI - Center for European Integration Studies.
  6. Welsch, Heinz, 2009. "Implications of happiness research for environmental economics," Ecological Economics, Elsevier, vol. 68(11), pages 2735-2742, September.
  7. David G. Blanchflower & Andrew J. Oswald, 2004. "Money, Sex, and Happiness: An Empirical Study," NBER Working Papers 10499, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  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. Amy Finkelstein & Erzo F. P. Luttmer & Matthew J. Notowidigdo, 2013. "What Good Is Wealth Without Health? The Effect Of Health On The Marginal Utility Of Consumption," Journal of the European Economic Association, European Economic Association, vol. 11, pages 221-258, 01.
  10. 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.
  11. Miles Kimball & Ryan Nunn & Dan Silverman, 2015. "Accounting for Adaptation in the Economics of Happiness," NBER Working Papers 21365, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  12. Betsey Stevenson & Justin Wolfers, 2009. "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," NBER Working Papers 14969, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  13. 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.
  14. 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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