Coherent Identifier About this item: 20.500.12592/ngwk7v

What Do Happiness Data Mean? Theory and Survey Evidence

4 February 2021


What utility notion do self-reported well-being (SWB) questions measure? We clarify the assumptions that underlie existing applications regarding the (i) life domains, (ii) time horizons, and (iii) other-regarding preferences captured by SWB data. We ask survey respondents what they had in mind regarding (i)–(iii) when answering commonly used—life satisfaction, happiness, ladder—and new SWB questions. Respondents put most weight on the present and on themselves—but not enough to interpret SWB data as measuring notions of flow utility and self-centered utility. We find differences across SWB questions and across sociodemographic groups. We outline actionable suggestions for SWB researchers.



microeconomics behavioral economics poverty and wellbeing health, education, and welfare economics of aging welfare and collective choice

Acknowledgements & Disclosure
For helpful feedback, we thank Joan Broderick, Kristen Cooper, Angus Deaton, Dick Easterlin, Danny Kahneman, Andrew Oswald, Matthew Rabin, Alex Rees-Jones, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur Stone; participants at the Cornell Behavioral Economics Research Group, Cornell Behavioral/Experimental Lab Meetings, Hebrew University Behavioral/Experimental Economics Meetings, AEA annual meetings; BEAM, and seminar participants at Colorado Boulder, London School of Economics, Paris School of Economics, Princeton, Stockholm Institute for Future Studies, Warwick, UC Berkeley, USC, and Louvain la Neuve. We are grateful to Ophir Averbuch, Joel Becker, Samantha Cunningham, Ofer Glicksohn, Arshia Hashemi, Aharon Haver, Yuezhou (Celena) Huo, Mattar Klein, Yotam Peterfreund, Tamar Yerushalmi, and Jianing (Jenny) Ying for excellent research assistance. For financial support, we are grateful to the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program grant no. DGE-1144153, and NIH/NIA grants R01-AG065364 to Hebrew University, R01-AG040787 to the University of Michigan, R01-AG051903 to UCLA, and P30-AG024928 to Princeton University. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or other funding bodies. The authors received IRB approval from the relevant institutions and have no material financial interests that relate to the research described in this paper. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.