What do Happiness Data Mean? Theory and Survey Evidence

Daniel J. Benjamin, Jakina Debnam Guzman, Marc Fleurbaey, Ori Heffetz, Miles Kimball

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What utility notion - e.g. flow/lifetime, self/family-centered - do self-reported well-being (SWB) questions measure? Existing applications make different assumptions regarding the (i) life domains, (ii) time horizons, and (iii) other-regarding preferences captured by SWB data. To obtain relevant evidence, we ask survey respondents what they had in mind regarding (i)-(iii) when answering commonly used - life satisfaction, happiness, ladder - and new SWB questions. We find that respondents' self-reports differ from researchers' assumptions and differ across SWB questions and sociodemographic groups. At the same time, simple SWB-question wording tweaks are effective in moving self-reports toward desired interpretations. We outline actionable suggestions for SWB researchers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2377-2412
Number of pages36
JournalJournal of the European Economic Association
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 1 2023
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance


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