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Do changes in the lives of our peers make us unhappy?

  • Tony Beatton



  • Paul Frijters

In this paper, we seek to explain the changes in aggregate happiness over the lifecycle. The advantage of looking at the aggregate level of happiness is that it solves the problems of missing peer effects and measurement error that plague models of individual level happiness, though the disadvantage is a dramatic loss of degrees of freedom. We use panel data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics for Australia (HILDA), which allows us to construct an index of the severity of life changes for each age. This single-variable Stress Index is able to explain over 80% of the variation in happiness over time. Unexpectedly, aggregate ‘positive stress’ (such as marriage rates by age or levels of job promotion) have greater negative effects on aggregate life satisfaction than negative stress (such as negative financial events or deaths of spouses), which we interpret as a strong indication that what is deemed a positive event by the person involved is a highly negative event for his or her peers. We find some evidence that extraverted individuals get affected less negatively by stress. The happiness maximising policy is then to reduce changes over the life cycle to the bare minimum needed to sustain a dynamic economy and to sustain procreation.

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Paper provided by School of Economics and Finance, Queensland University of Technology in its series School of Economics and Finance Discussion Papers and Working Papers Series with number 290.

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Length: 34 pages
Date of creation: 09 Aug 2012
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:qut:dpaper:290
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  1. Clark, Andrew E & Oswald, Andrew J, 1994. "Unhappiness and Unemployment," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 104(424), pages 648-59, May.
  2. Easterlin, Richard A., 2006. "Life cycle happiness and its sources: Intersections of psychology, economics, and demography," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 27(4), pages 463-482, August.
  3. Rojas, Mariano, 2007. "Heterogeneity in the relationship between income and happiness: A conceptual-referent-theory explanation," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 28(1), pages 1-14, January.
  4. Bruno Frey & Alois Stutzer, 2005. "Happiness Research: State and Prospects," Review of Social Economy, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 63(2), pages 207-228.
  5. Blanchflower, David G. & Oswald, Andrew J., 2004. "Well-being over time in Britain and the USA," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 88(7-8), pages 1359-1386, July.
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  7. Clark, Andrew E. & Oswald, Andrew J., 1996. "Satisfaction and comparison income," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 61(3), pages 359-381, September.
  8. Frijters, Paul & Beatton, Tony, 2012. "The mystery of the U-shaped relationship between happiness and age," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 82(2), pages 525-542.
  9. Michael Fordyce, 1988. "A review of research on the happiness measures: A sixty second index of happiness and mental health," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 20(4), pages 355-381, August.
  10. Helen Cheng & Adrian Furnham, 2004. "Perceived Parental Rearing Style, Self-Esteem and Self-Criticism as Predictors of Happiness," Journal of Happiness Studies, Springer, vol. 5(1), pages 1-21, March.
  11. Andrew E. Clark & Paul Frijters & Michael A. Shields, 2008. "Relative income, happiness, and utility: An explanation for the Easterlin paradox and other puzzles," Post-Print halshs-00754299, HAL.
  12. Easterlin, Richard A, 2001. "Income and Happiness: Towards an Unified Theory," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 111(473), pages 465-84, July.
  13. Kerry Chamberlain & Sheryl Zika, 1992. "Stability and change in subjective well-being over short time periods," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 26(2), pages 101-117, March.
  14. Ada Ferrer-i-Carbonell & Paul Frijters, 2004. "How Important is Methodology for the estimates of the determinants of Happiness?," Economic Journal, Royal Economic Society, vol. 114(497), pages 641-659, 07.
  15. Armin Falk & Markus Knell, 2004. "Choosing the Joneses: Endogenous Goals and Reference Standards," Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 106(3), pages 417-435, October.
  16. Winkelmann, Liliana & Winkelmann, Rainer, 1998. "Why Are the Unemployed So Unhappy? Evidence from Panel Data," Economica, London School of Economics and Political Science, vol. 65(257), pages 1-15, February.
  17. Bruce Headey, 2008. "The Set-Point Theory of Well-Being: Negative Results and Consequent Revisions," Social Indicators Research, Springer, vol. 85(3), pages 389-403, February.
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