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Understanding and Improving the Social Context of Well-Being


  • John F. Helliwell


The paper first attempts to demonstrate the fundamental importance of the social context. The related evidence is drawn from recent theoretical and empirical advances in the study of subjective well-being. Treating people's self-assessments of the quality of their lives as valid measures of well-being exposes the importance of the social context and suggests new ways to design better policies. The paper starts with demonstrations of the unexpectedly great well-being consequences of social and pro-social behavior. In addition, evidence is advanced to show an evolutionary fitness for social and pro-social behaviors above and beyond those flowing through their direct consequences for subjective well-being. This is followed by discussion of specific measures of the social context, of the fundamental importance of trust as social glue, and of several experiments designed to improve subjective well-being.

Suggested Citation

  • John F. Helliwell, 2012. "Understanding and Improving the Social Context of Well-Being," NBER Working Papers 18486, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:18486
    Note: DEV PE

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. John F. Helliwell & Robert D. Putnam, 1995. "Economic Growth and Social Capital in Italy," Eastern Economic Journal, Eastern Economic Association, vol. 21(3), pages 295-307, Summer.
    2. Joseph Henrich, 2001. "In Search of Homo Economicus: Behavioral Experiments in 15 Small-Scale Societies," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(2), pages 73-78, May.
    3. Robert J. MacCulloch & Rafael Di Tella & Andrew J. Oswald, 2001. "Preferences over Inflation and Unemployment: Evidence from Surveys of Happiness," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 91(1), pages 335-341, March.
    4. Roland Benabou & Jean Tirole, 2010. "Individual and Corporate Social Responsibility," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 77(305), pages 1-19, January.
    5. Lara B. Aknin & Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh & Elizabeth W. Dunn & John F. Helliwell & Robert Biswas-Diener & Imelda Kemeza & Paul Nyende & Claire E. Ashton-James & Michael I. Norton, 2010. "Prosocial Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal," NBER Working Papers 16415, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    6. John F. Helliwell & Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh & Anthony Harris & Haifang Huang, 2009. "International Evidence on the Social Context of Well-Being," NBER Working Papers 14720, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Herbert Gintis, 2000. "Strong Reciprocity and Human Sociality," UMASS Amherst Economics Working Papers 2000-02, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Department of Economics.
    8. John Helliwell & Shun Wang, 2014. "Weekends and Subjective Well-Being," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 116(2), pages 389-407, April.
    9. John F. Helliwell & Haifang Huang, 2014. "New Measures Of The Costs Of Unemployment: Evidence From The Subjective Well-Being Of 3.3 Million Americans," Economic Inquiry, Western Economic Association International, vol. 52(4), pages 1485-1502, October.
    10. John F. Helliwell & Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh, 2010. "How Much is Social Capital Worth?," NBER Working Papers 16025, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Schwartz, Carolyn E. & Sendor, Rabbi Meir, 1999. "Helping others helps oneself: response shift effects in peer support," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 48(11), pages 1563-1575, June.
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    Cited by:

    1. Craig Leisher & Leah H. Samberg & Pieter Van Buekering & M. Sanjayan, 2013. "Focal Areas for Measuring the Human Well-Being Impacts of a Conservation Initiative," Sustainability, MDPI, Open Access Journal, vol. 5(3), pages 1-14, March.
    2. Zhang, Xin & Zhang, Xiaobo & Chen, Xi, 2017. "Happiness in the air: How does a dirty sky affect mental health and subjective well-being?," Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, Elsevier, vol. 85(C), pages 81-94.
    3. Xin Zhang & Xiaobo Zhang & Xi Chen, 2015. "Happiness in the Air: How does a Dirty Sky Affect Subjective Well-Being?," Working Papers id:7598, eSocialSciences.
    4. John Helliwell & Shun Wang, 2014. "Weekends and Subjective Well-Being," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 116(2), pages 389-407, April.
    5. John Helliwell & Haifang Huang & Shun Wang, 2014. "Social Capital and Well-Being in Times of Crisis," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 15(1), pages 145-162, February.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D6 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics
    • I28 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Government Policy
    • N30 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - General, International, or Comparative

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