Sunday, December 7, 2014

Do people value the happiness of their families above their own personal happiness?

One way to answer this kind of question is to ask people to choose between hypothetical situations with different ratings of family well-being and variables such as life satisfaction, ratings of life relative to best and worst possible, appreciation of life and absence of negative emotion. That is the approach taken in an exploratory study by Daniel Benjamin, Ori Heffetz, Miles Kimball and Nichole Szembrot entitled, “Beyond Happiness and Satisfaction: Toward well-being indices based on stated preferences.

The people surveyed tended to indicate a stronger preference for options offering high “overall well-being to you and your family” than for any options regarding the 135 other aspects of well-being covered in the survey. The findings were based on an internet survey of 4,600 Americans.

The results help to explain why previous studies have shown that many people are prepared to sacrifice life satisfaction in order to obtain higher incomes.

Some of the other findings of the study are interesting:
  • Life satisfaction is ranked more highly than positive emotion (e.g. “how happy you feel”).
  • The absence of negative emotion, such as anger, stress, pain and worry tends to rank around the middle of aspects of well-being covered.
  • Eudaimonic dimensions of well-being, such as being a moral person and living according to personal values tend to rank highly.
  • Other aspects of personal well-being to be given a high ranking include health, the quality of family relationships, mental health and emotional stability, financial security and “having many options and possibilities in your life and the freedom to choose among them”.
  • Men tended to give higher ranking to “your sense that your life is meaningful and has value”, whereas women tend to rank more highly “your mental health and emotional stability”.
  • As regards policy options, greatest importance was attached to “freedom from corruption, injustice and abuse of power in your nation”, “the morality, ethics and goodness of other people in your nation” and “freedom of speech and people’s ability to take part in the political process and community life”.

The authors are at pains to point out the exploratory nature of their study and the many problems yet to be resolved in developing well-being indexes based on stated preferences. That might explain why some results that seem anomalous. For example, it is difficult to understand why “your rating on a ladder where the lowest rung is ‘worst possible life for you’ and the highest rung is ‘best possible life for you” is ranked far below “how satisfied you are with your life”( 103 versus 13). Previous research suggests that survey respondents view high ratings on those well-being indicators as close substitutes. Again, the ranking of “your material standard of living” (98) is much lower than the ranking of “your financial security” (6) and “your feeling that you have enough time and money for the things that are most important to you” (12).

My final comment on the study is that I was left wondering whether it might be possible to use a simpler approach to obtain useful indicators of well-being based on stated preferences. What I have in mind is to use each respondent’s current income and ratings of various other aspects of well-being as the initial basis for comparison and then asking them to choose between options involving various combinations of changes in income and other aspects of well-being. That might enable researchers to compare the marginal utility of different aspects of well-being in dollar terms and to map how preferences for different aspects of well-being tend to differ for people at different income levels.

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