The Reliability of Subjective Well-Being Measures
Economists are increasingly analyzing data on subjective well-being. Since 2000, 157 papers and numerous books have been published in the economics literature using data on life satisfaction or subjective well-being, according to a search of Econ Lit.1 Here we analyze the test-retest reliability of two measures of subjective well-being: a standard life satisfaction question and affective experience measures derived from the Day Reconstruction Method (DRM). Although economists have longstanding reservations about the feasibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility that we can only partially address here, another question concerns the reliability of such measurements for the same set of individuals over time. Overall life satisfaction should not change very much from week to week. Likewise, individuals who have similar routines from week to week should experience similar feelings over time. How persistent are individuals’ responses to subjective well-being questions? To anticipate our main findings, both measures of subjective well-being (life satisfaction and affective experience) display a serial correlation of about 0.60 when assessed two weeks apart, which is lower than the reliability ratios typically found for education, income and many other common micro economic variables (Bound, Brown, and Mathiowetz, 2001 and Angrist and Krueger, 1999), but high enough to support much of the research that has been undertaken on subjective well-being.
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