Showing posts with label Easterlin's puzzle. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Easterlin's puzzle. Show all posts

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

How are life satisfaction ratings related to living standards evaluations?


It is well known that in wealthy countries, further improvement of average incomes has only a small impact on average life satisfaction. Diametrically opposed explanations have been offered.

On the one hand, there are those who say that if rising incomes have little effect on average life satisfaction, that must mean that their apparent impact on living standards is a mirage – rising incomes do not count as progress.

On the other hand, there are those who say that average life satisfaction numbers are garbage – you can’t expect to get useful information by asking people to rate their satisfaction with life on a 10-point scale. They say that rising average incomes provide an accurate picture of progress.

In my view, those opposing explanations are both unhelpful to an understanding of the relationship between living standards and life satisfaction. In my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I explain that rising incomes result in actual improvements in living standards, and count as progress because that is what people aspire to have. Since self-direction is integral to human flourishing, it is obvious that progress is inextricably linked to conditions that enable individuals to meet their aspirations more fully. In the book, I also explain why I think average life satisfaction is an appropriate measure of psychological well-being at a national level. I suggest that psychological well-being, along with wise and well-informed self-direction, is one of several basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

The moving benchmark problem.

The failure of life satisfaction to reflect improved living standards is explained as follows in my book:

“The happiness surveys behind this puzzle, often referred to as the Easterlin puzzle, ask respondents to rate their lives relative to benchmarks such as the best possible life. Let us assume that when a person in a high-income country, call him Bill, answered that question in 1990, and he gave a rating of 8/10 for his life. Since then, Bill’s income has increased at about the same rate as the average for the country in which he lives, and there have been no abnormal changes in the circumstances of his life. In January 2020 … he again rated his life as 8/10. …

Bill’s income has risen, but his rating of his life has not risen.

The problem is that the survey prompted Bill to rate his life against a moving benchmark. Bill’s view of what constitutes the best possible life is likely to have risen over time. The people he sees living such a life have obtained access to better communication technology, and other things that have potential to enhance the quality of life. If you ask people to rate their current lives relative to a benchmark that is moving upwards over time, measurement error is inevitable.”

Ways to avoid the moving benchmark problem include the ACSA approach previously discussed on this blog (here and here). For reasons best known to themselves, happiness researchers have not shown much interest in using that approach to test the extent to which life satisfaction measures are distorted by moving benchmarks.

Living standards comparisons

The moving benchmark problem does not arise when people are asked how their standard of living compares with that of their parents when they were about the same age. Surveys of that kind have tended to provide information consistent with perceptions of ongoing progress with rising incomes in wealthy countries.

There is no plausible reason why such inter-generational comparisons should be viewed as less credible than life satisfaction ratings, or vice versa. As I see it, they are cognitive evaluations of different things. The intergenerational comparisons are measuring perceptions of progress, and the life satisfaction ratings are measuring current psychological well-being.

Merging life satisfaction and living standards evaluations

In order to obtain a better understanding of the linkage between perceptions of progress and current life evaluations, it is necessary to bring those different cognitive evaluations together in some way. That has been made possible by inclusion in the latest round of the World Values Survey of a question asking respondents whether their living standards are higher, lower, or about the same as those of their parents when they were about the same age. The graphs shown above were prepared using the excellent Online Data Analysis facility of the World Values Survey. Information is shown for the United States and Australia, but similar pictures emerge for other high-income countries.

The most obvious point illustrated by the graphs is that people tend to be much less satisfied with their lives if they perceive that their living standards are lower than those of their parents at a comparable age. Their perceptions that their living standards have fallen tends to make them feel grumpy about life.

The second point to emerge is that the life satisfaction ratings of those who perceive that their living standards are better than those of their parents are not much higher than for those who perceive that their living standards are about the same as those of their parents. Their perceptions of progress are not reflected to any great extent in their satisfaction current lives. That result is consistent with my view that life satisfaction is a poor indicator of the extent to which people meet their aspirations for higher living standards.


Perceptions of change in living standards that emerge from intergenerational comparisons are related to the recent history of economic growth in different countries. The greatest percentage perceive that their living standards are higher than their parents in countries that have sustained high rates of growth in per capita GDP over several decades. Of the 54 countries for which data are available, Vietnam has the greatest percentage in that category (90%) and Iraq has the lowest (21%). The corresponding percentages for Australia and the U.S. are 56% and 48% respectively.

Percentages who perceive that their living standards are lower than their parents follow a broadly similar pattern, but in most countries are within the range of 10% to 25%. Of the 54 countries, Zimbabwe is the only one where more than half of respondents perceived that their standard of living was lower than that of their parents. The corresponding percentages for Australia and the U.S. are 15% and 19% respectively.

The age structure of people who perceive themselves to be worse off than their parents suggests that this source of grumpiness is likely to pose a greater problem in Australia and the U.S. in the years ahead. The incidence is lowest among the 65+ age group (7.6% for Australia and 8.4% for the U.S.). The highest incidence in Australia is in the 25-34 age group (20.1%) and in the U.S. in the 35-44 age group (26.4%).


Average life satisfaction provides useful information on psychological well-being at a national level, but is a poor measure of the extent to which people are meeting their aspirations for higher living standards. As expected, people who perceive their standard of living to be higher than that of their parents, do not rate their life satisfaction much higher than those who perceive their standard of living to be about the same as that of their parents. However, people who perceive their standard of living to be lower than that of their parents have markedly lower life satisfaction than the other groups. The percentage of grumpy people in countries such as Australia and the U.S. seems set to rise in the years ahead unless opportunities improve for young people to meet their aspirations for higher living standards.

Thursday, November 25, 2021

How useful is the WELLBY concept in assessing the benefits and costs of alternative policies?


There are good reasons why public policy discussions often revolve around the benefits and costs of alternative policies. Discussions that begin with the consideration of rights often require participants to acknowledge conflicting rights and to weigh up consequences in a search for the principles that can most appropriately be applied.

For example, consider what followed when I suggested recently in a discussion of the merits of lockdowns to counter the spread of COVID19 that such policies should be assessed against the principle that individuals have a right to direct their own flourishing, provided they do not interfere with the similar rights of other people. The latter part of that assertion implies a willingness to consider whether infected people who spread disease are interfering with the rights of others. At an early stage of the discussion, I acknowledged that it would be a step too far to insist that everyone has the right to recklessly endanger the lives of others. I argued that there should nevertheless be a presumption in favour of freedom, and that those who advocate restriction of freedom should be required to demonstrate that the benefits clearly exceed the costs.

That illustrates how the discussion of benefits and costs tends to rule the roost in civilized discussions of public policy. An exchange of different views about rights can be enlightening, but endless repetition of conflicting assertions about rights does not qualify as civilized discussion in my view.

A WELLBY (or Wellbeing Year) is equal to a one-point increment on a 10-point life satisfaction scale. If you assessed your level of life satisfaction as 8/10 in 2019 and 7/10 in 2020, that would be a decline of one WELLBY.

I began thinking about the WELLBY concept while considering how it is possible to measure the costs and benefits of lockdowns, but in this article, I will focus on the usefulness of that concept rather than on the question of whether benefits of lockdowns could ever exceed the associated costs.

Assessing the psychological cost of lockdowns

Indicators of subjective well-being are obviously relevant in assessing the psychological costs associated with policies that require people to stay at home. Available evidence suggests that lockdowns caused a decline in average life satisfaction of about half a point in the UK and similar countries in the
period to March 2021. On that basis, Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker estimate that lockdowns cause loss of life satisfaction to the general public in the U.K. of 41,667 WELLBYs per million citizens for each month of lockdown. This estimate is in Chapter 5 of their book, The Great Covid Panic, 2021.

I think that is an appropriate use of the WELLBY concept. If anyone knows of a better way to assess the psychological costs of lockdowns, I would be interested to know what it is.

Frijters, Foster, and Baker incorporate several other items in their assessment of the costs of lockdowns. I will consider one of those later, but I want to turn now to use of the WELLBY concept in the assessment of the main hypothetical benefit of lockdowns, namely lives potentially saved.

Assessing the value of a life saved

Richard Layard and Ekaterina Oparina have published a provocative article using a WELLBY approach to assess the monetary value of preventing the loss of one year of human life (Chapter 8 of World Happiness Report, 2021).

Layard and Oparina begin their discussion by observing that the average WELLBY is 7.5 in advanced countries. On that basis, they claim that preventing the loss of one year of the life of one person saves 7.5 WELLBYs.

The authors draw upon information on the relationship between income and life satisfaction in order to assess the monetary value of that loss. After some discussion of relevant research, they suggest that a coefficient of 0.3 is an appropriate measure of the impact on life satisfaction of a unit change in absolute log income. With average income of $30, 000, the loss of $1 is equivalent to 1/100,000 WELLBYs (0.3/30,000). It follows, they suggest, that “we” should be willing to pay up to around $750, 000 to save a year of life (7.5 WELLBYs).

Layard and Oparina point out that the $750, 000 would be shared over the whole population. Nevertheless, it still seems an extremely large sum to pay to prolong a life by just one year.

One possible source of error is that life may have no value for people with very low life satisfaction, for example those with a rating less than 2/10. If you assume that a life year is equivalent to 5.5 WELLBYs (7.5 minus 2.0), the estimated sum that “we” should be willing to pay to prolong life by one year is reduced to $550, 000. That still seems implausibly high.

The estimate could be further reduced by taking account of the fact that the people who are most vulnerable to COVID19 often have pre-existing ailments that would tend to reduce their life satisfaction, and many of those in nursing homes would be unlikely to live another year in any case.

However, let us return to the question of whether $550,000 is a plausible estimate of what “we” should be prepared to pay to prolong by one year the life of a person with an average life satisfaction rating. An alternative way to approach the issue of determining the monetary value of a year of life is to consider estimates of the impact of changes in healthy life expectancy on average life satisfaction. Regression analysis suggests that the addition of one year to healthy life expectancy adds only 0.033 to average life satisfaction (Table 2.1, World Happiness Report, 2019). The income loss providing an equivalent loss of life satisfaction is only $3,300 (0.033*100,000). That strikes me as an implausibly low estimate of the value of a year of life.

My view of what is a plausible estimate of the value of one year of life is not based solely on my own gut feelings. The assumed value of a life year in cost-benefit analysis typically ranges from $50, 000 to $250, 000. Those assumptions are based on surveys asking people how much they would be willing to pay to extend their lives and estimates of amounts people need to be paid to accept jobs involving greater risks to life.

Estimates of the value of a year of life within that range seem to be broadly consistent with community expectations. Some groups may lobby for lives to be valued more highly in assessing whether life-saving drugs should be subsidized by governments. However, I don’t see large numbers of people suggesting that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to fund that.

There seems to me to be a fundamental problem in attempting to assess the value of a life-year from the relationship between average income and average WELLBYs. As I explain in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, psychological well-being is just one of the basic goods of a flourishing human. When you ask individuals open-ended questions about how they are faring, their responses are not confined to the extent that they are “satisfied” with life. They are likely to talk about whether they are achieving their aspirations, the state of their health and their personal relationships. If you ask a person who already has high life satisfaction why they aspire to earn a higher income, they are not likely to claim that they expect a higher income to enable them to become more satisfied with their own life. They are more likely to say that they want to put some money aside for various reasons, for example to assist with education of children or grandchildren, or to have something to fall back on in the event of illness.

If an individual is faced with a decision about whether to use accumulated wealth (or to mortgage their house) to purchase an expensive drug that might prolong their life for a year, the quality of that extended life (WELBYs) is not the only factor that they are likely to consider. The choice they make may well give consideration to their desire to improve opportunities available to the next generation of their family. There is an intergenerational choice involved in placing a value on an additional year of life.

What value should be placed on the lives of potential humans?

Frijters, Foster, and Baker include among the costs of lockdown the shutting down of the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) program during lockdowns in the UK because it was deemed to be a nonessential service. This resulted in about 30 fewer IVF births per million citizens per month of lockdown.

The cost of disruption of the IVF program is not critical to the authors’ conclusion that the cost of lockdowns exceed the benefits. Nevertheless, in my view there is a strong case for it to be taken into account. Potential parents clearly place a high value on the new lives that the program makes possible.

However, the methodology which Frijters, Foster, and Baker use to estimate the cost of disruption of the IVF program is a straightforward application of the WELBY concept to value lives. They calculate that each of these potential humans could be expected to enjoy 480 WELLBYs during his or her life – each is assumed to have a value equal to 6 WELLBYs and to live on average for 80 years. With the loss of 30 IVF babies per month, that amounts to the loss of 14,400 WELLBYs worth of human well-being per month per million citizens.

The reasoning is impeccable if you accept the utilitarian assumptions associated with use of the WELLBY concept to measure the value of a human life. Within that framework, if government policies prevent potential humans from being born, that diminishes the sum of human happiness by the amount of happiness they would have enjoyed during their lifetimes.

I have already indicated that I don’t accept that people value their own lives exclusively on the basis of WELLBYs. However, if I have not yet persuaded you to reject the WELLBY approach to evaluation of lives, you may wish to consider the following possible outcome of applying that approach.

Let us suppose that a government is considering a ban on all forms of contraception and seeks the services of some utilitarian advocates of maximization of human happiness to evaluate the costs and benefits of the proposal. It seems reasonable to predict that the utilitarians would conclude that the additional births resulting from the policy change would result in a large net increase in WELLBYs, and therefore an increase in the sum of human happiness. The more, the merrier they might say!


The WELLBY concept has a useful role to play in evaluation of some policies that have an impact on psychological well-being.

However, the valuation of lives according to the number of WELLBYs individuals might enjoy seems to be at variance with the approach that individuals take in making choices in relation to extension of their own lives. That approach to valuing lives is widely at variance with the approach most people in advanced countries adopt in considering the value of potential lives of the many additional humans that they could bring into the world if they felt inclined to do so. It counts the lives of potential people as having equal value to the lives of the living.

The WELLBY approach to valuation of human life should be rejected.


A survey conducted by UBS has provided relevant information on the proportion of wealth that investors are willing to sacrifice for additional years of life. The survey covered 5,000 wealthy investors in 10 countries. On average, those with financial wealth in the $1 to $2 million range indicated that they were willing to give up 32% of their wealth for an additional decade of healthy living. That may seem a lot, but amounts to only $32,000 to $64,000 per annum when spread over 10 years.

Those figures are far lower than the $750,000 (discussed above) that an application of the WELLBY approach to life evaluation has suggested that “we” should be willing to pay to save a year of life.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why am I interested in happiness research?

“THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir - peremptorily Thomas - Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious, non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind - no, sir!
In such terms Mr. Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general.” Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Chapter2.

I'm not like that. However, an interest in happiness research may seem to many people to imply an obsession with measuring, calculating and attempting to understand things that are not meant to be understood. 

Perhaps trying to understand what makes people happy is a bit like trying to understand why jokes are funny. It isn’t obvious that an understanding of what makes jokes funny would be much help to anyone in telling jokes, or how an understanding of what makes people happy would help anyone to become happier.

It is fairly easy to explain how I came to be interested in happiness research, so I will begin by writing about that. In my work as an economist I spent more than a few decades considering what government policies were likely to advance the well-being of the people in the countries where I have lived and worked (mainly Australia and New Zealand. It seemed fairly obvious that the vast majority of Australians and New Zealanders wanted higher incomes, so it was reasonable to assume that would improve their well-being. If someone questioned whether higher incomes would make people any happier, my defence was that economists should be in the business of making it possible for people to have happier lives rather than advising them how to spend their money.

At the same time, I could not help becoming interested in the puzzle of why happiness surveys showed little or no increase in average happiness ratings in high income countries over several decades while average income levels rose substantially. This is of course Easterlin’s puzzle - named after the economist Richard Easterlin.

I stopped being puzzled once I understood that happiness surveys measure emotional well-being - a component of well-being rather than the whole package. There is no reason to expect the value that people place on physical health, education, housing and safety, among other things, to be fully reflected in measures of emotional well-being. 

Emotional well-being is strongly related to self-esteem, optimism and the feeling of being in control of one’s life – none of which would be expected to be strongly influenced by further increases in incomes in high-income countries.

It is true, of course, that when people see higher incomes as the pathway to emotional bliss they are unlikely to be satisfied with one pot of gold - even if they find the end of a rainbow. But most people seem to make sensible choices. They might seek a higher income if that is necessary to pursue objectives that they consider to be worthwhile. For many people, higher incomes are incidental to career objectives. There is no reason to expect people to stop trying to achieve more in life just because they are satisfied with their current standard of living.

It seems to me that if we are interested in measuring well-being, then the survey measures of happiness are just one of the items we should look at. I favour the approach taken by the OECD in its Better Life Index.

However, an indicator approach doesn’t give economists a value-free measure of well-being. It leaves open the question of what weights should be given to the various component indexes. The OECD leaves the value judgement in the hands of the users of its index. That is more appropriate than having researchers assign weights, but it would be good to see how weights might need to differ to reflects the different values of people in different parts of the world. In my view the Better Life Index should be accompanied by illustrative weights derived from a values survey.

So, one of the reasons why I am interested in happiness research is apparent from what I have written. Happiness research is relevant to measurement of human well-being and that is relevant to economic policy.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between freedom and flourishing. Do government restrictions on individual freedom – in the wars against drug taking, smoking, alcohol, obesity, overwork etc. - actually have the desired effect of enabling people to have happier lives? I don’t think so. The policies adopted by governments seem designed to make people less happy in an attempt to get them to adopt healthier lifestyles, but I don’t know where to find the evidence to prove it.

In any case, that is only part of the story. My interest in happiness research is not always closely related to government policy. Some of my recent posts have taken me into the relationship between life satisfaction and the incidence of negative emotional experience. I am not sure why I am interested in such matters. Nevertheless, it seems more satisfying than spending my time trying to understand what makes jokes funny.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Does homeostasis explain the stability of life satisfaction in high income countries?

The theory of subjective well-being homeostasis proposes that life satisfaction is controlled by automatic neurological processes in a manner analogous to the maintenance of body temperature. The theory has been proposed by Professor Robert Cummins of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life (ACQOL), Deakin University. The basic idea is that positive and negative experiences can cause temporary changes in life satisfaction, but homeostasis normally brings it back within a set-point range. The exception occurs where chronic failure of the homeostatic system results in depression.

The theory proposes that homeostatic buffers enable humans to function normally:
  • adaptation restores life satisfaction to the set-point range following positive changes in circumstances, such as an increase in income;
  • resilience tends to restore life satisfaction to the set-point range following strong negative challenges.

Resilience depends on external resources, particularly intimate relationships and wealth, and internal buffers designed to minimise the impact of personal failure on positive feelings about the self. The internal buffers can operate at an unconscious level - e.g. assisting an individual to cope by enabling positive emotions to become accessible. They also operate at a conscious level by altering the way individuals see themselves in relation to the challenge (e.g. denying personal responsibility or viewing the failure as unimportant).

The distinguishing feature of the homeostasis theory is not the existence of adaptation and resilience – which are widely acknowledged in the happiness research literature – but the idea that these processes tend to restore emotional systems to unique set-points for each individual.

When I first read about homeostasis theory, a few years ago, evidence that some individuals experience long-term changes in life satisfaction seemed inconsistent with the idea of constant individual set-points. However, as Bob Cummins has pointed out, changes in life satisfaction do not necessarily imply change in an individual’s set-point (or homeostatically protected mood). If initial measurements of life satisfaction are higher than, or lower than, the set-point, then subsequent measurements can be expected to show a return to the set-point range.

My remaining doubts about homeostasis theory centre mainly around the question of how it can be reconciled with the international evidence of lower average life satisfaction in low-income countries. I find it hard to accept that a high proportion of the people in low-income countries who claim to have relatively low levels of satisfaction with their lives are suffering failure of their homeostatic systems. In some low-income countries, e.g. China, relatively low average life satisfaction seems to be accompanied by relatively high positive affect and relatively low negative affect.

Perhaps set-point ranges remain constant – if we think in terms of hypothetical neural correlates – but the relationship between set-point ranges and life satisfaction scales may change with changes in perceptions of what might be possible. As discussed in a recent post, individuals who move from a remote village to a major city might feel that their lives have improved, even though they become less contented with their living standards after moving to the new location. Does that mean they have become more vulnerable to homeostatic breakdown? I am not qualified to make informed predictions in relation to such matters, but my guess is that there would not be an increased risk of breakdown if the people concerned remain optimistic about their prospects in the city and retain the option to return to the village for family support if they need it.

The predictions of homeostasis theory seem to stand up well to tests that have been conducted so far. For example, homeostasis theory predicts that there will be greater variation in subjective well-being among people with low incomes than among people with high incomes. This is because people with low incomes (or low wealth) are more vulnerable to changes in circumstances. Analysis using data from the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index indicates that the standard deviation of subjective well-being is indeed substantially higher for people with relatively incomes, and declines as household incomes rise to around $100,000.

Homeostasis theory seems to provide a more plausible explanation for the stability of average life satisfaction in high-income countries than a rival theory, advanced by some economists, that this stability reflects evaluative judgements of life by the people in those countries. Evidence that life satisfaction is influenced by genes, and strongly related to self-esteem, optimism and feelings of being in control of one’s life, suggests that it is more appropriately interpreted as reflecting the moods (or frames of mind) of respondents than evaluative judgements. 

Researchers who want subjective well-being measures to reflect evaluative judgements that individuals make about the quality of their lives should consider an approach which requires greater cognitive inputs e.g. the ACSA question which asks people to assess their current well-being relative to the best and worst periods of their lives.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Can the "best possible life" get much better?

Someone is sure to try to tell me that the best possible life is a bit like Groundhog Day – it is as good as life can get. If I thought that the quality of life was just about emotional states I would agree. But there is more to life than emotional states, even though emotional states are very important.

The question is meant to be about the extent to which people perceive that it is possible for the quality of the best possible life to continue to get better, e.g. as a result of further advances in medical science or communications.

In happiness surveys people are often asked to evaluate their lives according to the Cantril ladder. The relevant question, as asked in Gallup’s World Poll, is as follows:
Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?” 

I have not been able to find research that directly relates to the question of how perceptions of the best possible life differ between countries and change over time. Perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough, or in the right places. If any readers can steer me in the direction of relevant research I would be most grateful.

A few years ago, Angus Deaton, who has been associated with the Gallup World Poll, speculated as follows about the meaning of “the best possible life”:
A simpler interpretation of the Gallup World Poll findings is that when asked to imagine the best and worst possible lives for themselves, points "10" and "0" on the scale, people use a global standard. Danes understand how bad life is in Togo and other poor places, and the Togolese, through television and newspapers, understand how good life is in Denmark or other high-income countries.
Such an interpretation is also consistent with Easterlin's conclusion that the "best possible life for you" is a shifting standard that will move upward with rising living standards. Thus, we might expect the Danes to continue to maintain an average rating of 8 as national income rises, provided they stay in the same position in the global income rankings. If this interpretation is correct, it would be an indication of how much the globalization of information has affected the perceptions of populations worldwide - because the consistently high correlation between income and satisfaction could not have existed in its absence.”

I have some problems with the first paragraph of the quote. Given the wording of the question, it seems likely that perceptions of the best possible life are strongly influenced by knowledge of what kinds of lives it might be possible for the respondent to live. There seems to be quite strong evidence that the reference groups that rural people in China use to evaluate their own satisfaction with life are their fellow-villagers. The reference group changes when people move to the city. (See paper by John Knight and Ramani Gunatilaka.) That seems to be related to the “paradox of happy peasants and frustrated achievers” discussed by Carol Graham. If people evaluate their lives according to a rural village reference point of the best possible life, they may not be overstating their happiness but they are basing their judgement of their well-being on imperfect knowledge of what is possible. In order to shed more light on such matters it would be useful to conduct surveys of migrants from rural to urban areas using the ACSA methodology discussed in a recent post.

When we consider high income countries, it seems reasonable to expect that perceptions of the potential for the best possible life to improve would be closely related to perceptions of whether today’s youth will have a better life than their parents. Gallup’s surveys for the United States suggest that from 1998 to 2008 around two-thirds of Americans were optimistic, and only one-third pessimistic, about whether today’s youth would have a better life than their parents. Since then, however, Americans have become equally divided on that question. That probably reflects ongoing economic uncertainty in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.

It would be interesting to know to what extent people who consider themselves to be living the best possible life at present are optimistic about the potential for life to get even better. I don’t have access to the detailed Gallup data, but data from the World Values Survey relating to people who are “completely satisfied” with their lives (score of 10 on the WVS rating scale) may be relevant. The following chart is based on data for high income countries in the latest round of surveys (2010-14) who claim to be completely satisfied with their lives.

The chart shows that being completely satisfied with life does not prevent people from being in agreement with the proposition that because of science and technology there will be more opportunities for the next generation. Optimism about such matters might even help to explain why some people are completely satisfied with their lives.  

Postscript: November 2019
Recent research by Alan Piper has suggested that optimism and pessimism about the future have an important influence on life satisfaction that is not attributable to personality differences among individuals. The use of German panel data covering several decades enabled the author to control for individual fixed effects (including those attributable to personality differences). Controlling for fixed effects reduces the estimated coefficients, but their size suggests that views of the future have an important impact irrespective of personality differences. After controlling for fixed effects, the estimated reduction in life satisfaction experienced by individuals who report being pessimistic is comparable to that associated with unemployment.
The paper: ‘Optimism, pessimism and life satisfaction: an empirical investigation’, February 2019, German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP)
The results suggest that while many people who have high life satisfaction might think that the life they are living is the best possible at present, that is consistent with them being optimistic about the potential for their lives to become even better in future.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Should life evaluations be anchored to the best and worst periods of our lives?

Survey data on life satisfaction is a reliable tool for measuring some aspects of well-being. There is evidence (including in some research reported on this blog) that survey measures of life satisfaction are closely related to perceptions of achievement, personal relationships, standard of living, links to community, health and future security. There is also evidence that when people are asked to evaluate their life satisfaction they tend to think about things such as their career, romantic life, family, standard of living and health (See: Maike Luhmann

However, as previously discussed on this blog (here, here and here) there is a problem in comparing life satisfaction ratings from surveys conducted at different times because reference norms do not remain static.  When we are asked to rate our satisfaction with life we do so relative to reference norms, such as by comparing the quality of our lives with those of people we know, or by comparing our current lives with ‘the best possible life’. That means that we are rating our lives against benchmarks that can change as a result of such things as technological advances. For example, if we perceive that people living the best possible life have access to useful communications devices, such as iPhones, we may rate our own lives less highly if we cannot afford such devices.

If we see our lives improving in line with our perceptions of the best possible life, it is hardly surprising if we give similar ratings to their lives in successive surveys. It should be obvious that it would be a mistake under those circumstances to interpret stable ratings as implying that there has been no improvement in the quality of our lives. Before claiming that people are on some kind of hedonic treadmill that requires them to run faster to stay in the same place, researchers should be sure that the measurement tools they are using are actually capable of measuring progress.

Similarly, when researchers see life satisfaction ratings return to previous levels after people suffer some misfortune, they should be sure that they are using appropriate measurement tools before they claim that this means that the people concerned have not experienced any lasting loss of well-being. It is commendable and often therapeutic to “look on the bright side of life”, but if life evaluations reflect frames of mind it may be problematic to interpret them as a judgement about overall well-being.

That point can be illustrated by reference to a South African study in which conventional life satisfaction and happiness ratings were compared with scores on the ACSA scale. (See: Valerie MøllerPeter TheunsIda Erstad and Jan Bernheim, ‘The Best and Worst Times of Life: Narratives and Assessments of subjective Well-Being by Anamnestic Comparative Self Assessment (ACSA) in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’, Soc Indic Res, 89(1) 2008.)

The ACSA approach to measuring well-being and changes in well-being was first suggested by Jan Bernheim about 30 years ago. Its distinctive feature is to ask survey respondents to rate their current well-being by comparison with their memory of the best and worst periods of their own lives, with the best period being given a rating of +5 and the worst period being given a rating of -5. The scale is left open so that subsequent scores higher than +5 or lower than -5 are possible if individuals consider that their lives have improved or deteriorated sufficiently.

The South African study involved 46 respondents, 20 of whom were patients in a TB hospital. In general, the three measures of subjective well-being were strongly correlated with each other, but there was weak correlation between life satisfaction and ACSA for the TB patients. Again, while there were no significant differences between the averages of conventional life satisfaction and happiness ratings of the TB patients and others included in the survey, on the ACSA scale the average ratings of the TB patients were about 30 per cent lower than for the others included in the survey.

The authors note that while they did not ask for life stories when they were obtaining ACSA scores, they observed that respondents tended to string the momentous events in their lives together, using anchor periods as reference points to shape a coherent narrative. Interviews lasted between half an hour and 45 minutes and respondents “generally had no difficulty with the task”.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post wondering why more use has not been made of ACSA. I am still wondering. It seems to me that it would be potentially useful to incorporate an ACSA question for a sub-sample of respondents whose well-being has been monitored over an extended period in longitudinal studies (such as GSOEP, HILDA and BHPS). The accounts of changes in well-being over time provided by those surveys would be more plausible if life evaluations were anchored to consistent reference points corresponding to the best and worst periods of the lives of respondents.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

How does income inequality affect happiness?

Early yesterday the thought occurred to me that it might be a good idea to write something about the effects of inequality on happiness levels. I have been thinking that the judgements people make about inequality are more like judgements about the characteristics of a good society than judgements about the effects of inequality on aggregate happiness (whatever that means). I thought I would spend an hour or so bringing myself up to date with the literature and then another hour or so writing something - and the rest of the day in the garden. However, the process has taken longer than I thought it would (and this post might also take longer to read than some people might think appropriate).

The issues involved are fairly complex. There are at least three different aspects of the relationship between income inequality and happiness that might be relevant – the effects of relative income levels on happiness, the more general effects of income inequality on happiness and the effects of income inequality on happiness inequality.

How do relative income levels affect life satisfaction? As discussed here some time ago, this is not always about envy and status-seeking. The findings of a study by Guy Mayraz et al, based on German panel data, are consistent with the more conventional view that income comparisons tend to have negative effects on life satisfaction of people with relatively low incomes. However, some of the authors’ findings shed further light on the issues:
  • ·         Life satisfaction of men is more affected by relative income than that of women.
  • ·          Comparisons with friends and neighbours are less important than broader comparisons with the whole population.
  • ·          Those who perceive income comparisons to be important tend to have lower life satisfaction.
  • ·         The negative effect of relative income comparisons for those with below average incomes is balanced (from a Benthamite perspective) by the positive effect for those with above average income.

Does inequality have an effect on life satisfaction over and above the relative income effect? Studies which have attempted to answer this question have often reached different conclusions. A recent study by Paolo Verme, which seems to be technically superior to previous studies, has found that income inequality tends to have a significantly negative effect on life satisfaction, after controlling for relative income effects etc. The results seem to apply in western countries as well as non-western countries and to rich people as well as to poor people.

This raises the question of why income inequality might have these effects. One possibility is that people feel more comfortable in societies where opportunities are relatively equal. Another possibility is that they are more concerned about equality of outcomes. If so, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are concerned about income inequality because they think it results in happiness inequality.

Is there strong correlation between income inequality and happiness inequality? In a post a couple of years ago I suggested that there was not much evidence of correlation between income inequality and happiness inequality - on the basis of a paper by Jan Ott and some research of my own. Since there were not many countries included in these studies, it seemed like a good idea to produce the scatter diagram below showing measures of income and happiness dispersion for a larger number of countries. (I used World Bank and CIA data on the income/consumption gini and data on standard deviation of life satisfaction from Veenhoven’s latest IAH paper. Both series are based on information for various years during the last decade.)

I can’t see any relationship between the variables in the chart, but statistical analysis suggests that a weak positive relationship might exist.  (The correlation between the variables is 0.13. The estimated coefficient relating inequality of happiness to inequality of income in a linear regression is positive, but the standard error is not much smaller than the estimate. The ‘t’ statistic is 1.38.)

The absence of a strong relationship between inequality of income and happiness at an international level is consistent with the observation of Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers that there has not been a close link between trends in happiness inequality and income inequality in the United States. It is also consistent with the findings of a paper by Leonardo Becchetti et al, based on panel data, that the increase in income inequality has not been one of the drivers of the increase in happiness inequality in Germany.

So, how did this information enlighten me on the question of whether the judgements people make about inequality are more like judgements about the characteristics of a good society than judgements about the effects of inequality on aggregate happiness? The effects of relative income on life satisfaction do not seem relevant to this question. The relationship between income inequality and individual happiness does seem relevant, but I suspect it has more to do with empathy with compatriots and a desire to alleviate suffering of people near the bottom of the income scale rather than a more general concern about distributional equity.

Happiness inequality also seems relevant. When Ruut Veenhoven argues that the quality of a society should be judged by the disparity of happiness among its citizens as well by average happiness levels, he is clearly making a judgement about the characteristics of a good society. The weakness of the relationship between income inequality and happiness inequality certainly suggests that caution is required in basing judgements about the relative quality of different societies on income distribution data. The question I am left with, however, is to what extent disparities of happiness can be attributed to government policies and societal institutions (the rules of the game) rather than individual and group behaviour. It seems to me that to the extent that we introduce distributional considerations into our consideration of the quality of different societies, we are on safer ground in basing our judgements on the distribution of opportunities that are offered, rather than on the distribution of happiness outcomes.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Perhaps we seek wealth to enjoy autonomy?

‘The question was whether it is more important to provide individuals with money or with autonomy. Our results suggest that providing individuals in nations with autonomy has overall a larger and more consistent effect on well-being than money. Money leads to autonomy (Welzel et al., 2003; Welzel & Inglehart, 2010), but it does not add to well-being or happiness.’

That is from the concluding paragraph of an article by Ronald Fischer and Diana Boer, ‘What is more important for national well-being: Money or autonomy?’, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The question of whether it is more important to provide individuals with money or autonomy strikes me as odd. Who has the power to choose whether individuals should be provided with money or autonomy? Governments don’t normally have that power.

I suppose it is possible to imagine a powerful paternalistic ruler contemplating whether to give his serfs a monetary bonus or to give them autonomy. It is clear from their article that when the authors refer to autonomy they are talking about a situation where individuals ‘can make their own choices in life’ rather than, for example, just choose what hobbies to pursue in their spare time. If our paternalistic ruler is contemplating giving his serfs the power to make their own choices in life, what he has in mind must involve economic freedom and opportunities for wealth creation.

When individuals have the opportunity to do so, they tend to use their own labour, skills and property for purposes that they value. Those purposes include cooperating with others for mutual advantage e.g. through specialization and exchange, and developing better products and more efficient technologies. Recognition of individual autonomy thus underpins the specialization, exchange and innovation that are integral to wealth creation.

The quoted passage refers to an article by Welzel and Inglehart in support of the proposition that ‘money leads to autonomy’. As discussed in my last post, one of the points made in that article is that in countries with higher levels of economic development (i.e. countries with higher self-expression values) people tend to achieve higher life satisfaction to a greater extent through activities that enhance autonomy (feelings of agency). Economic freedom leads to wealth and wealth leads to greater enjoyment of autonomy through pursuit of objectives further up the hierarchy of needs than survival and financial security.

The finding by Fischer and Boer that ‘money does not add to well-being’ doesn’t actually mean that income or wealth makes no contribution to well-being. It seems to me that what the finding means is that the contribution of income to well-being is encompassed in the contribution of income to individualism (self-expression values).

The authors’ research involved constructing indexes to compare negative psychological well-being, anxiety and burnout in different countries by combining the results of a large number of studies throughout the world. Statistical analysis was then undertaken to determine the extent to which these indexes could be explained by income levels or an indicator of individualism. When income and individualism were included separately in some of the analyses both of these variables were statistically significant, but when they were included together income became statistically insignificant. This suggests that the effects of income on well-being tend to be incorporated in the individualism (self-expression) variable.

I doubt whether that result would surprise many economists. First, it is well known that as incomes rise people tend to place a higher value on leisure (the income elasticity of demand for leisure is positive). Second as leisure increases, an increasing proportion of income tends to be spent on goods that are complementary to leisure (e.g. holiday packages). Third, goods that account for an increasing proportion of spending (goods with high income elasticity of demand) tend to be more strongly related to individual self-expression than to survival. Finally, increased wealth is valued for the options it provides as well as for the goods that are purchased with it. There are precautionary motives for accumulation of wealth e.g. as insurance against unemployment or ill health. People also value the option to be able to take advantage of opportunities (e.g. the holiday adventure of a lifetime) that may arise in future.

As I see it, the greater happiness of people in high-income countries can probably be attributed to greater satisfaction of fundamental human needs related to autonomy, relatedness and competence in those countries. When individual agency has been recognized, people have tended to use their autonomy for good purposes, establish better relations with others, become more competent and create wealth. The wealth is important only to the extent that it helps individuals to pursue purposes that they value – and to enjoy autonomy, good relations with others and a sense of achievement.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Is life satisfaction mainly about comfort?

‘Contrary to both those who say money is not associated with happiness and those who say that it is extremely important, we found that money is much more related to some forms of well-being than it is to others. Income is most strongly associated with the life evaluation form of well-being, which is a reflective judgment on people’s lives compared with what they want them to be. Although statistically significant, the association of income with positive and negative feelings was modest’ (Ed Diener, Weiting Ng, James Harta and Raksha Arora, ‘Wealth and happiness across the world ...’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (99:1), 2010, p. 60. Media reports: here and here.)

In my view this recent article makes an important contribution to understanding of the relationship between wealth and emotional well-being by attempting to disentangle the determinants of life satisfaction and positive feelings. The article, based on data from the Gallup World Poll, suggests that while satisfaction with standard of living has a substantial impact on satisfaction with life as a whole it has little impact on positive or negative feelings (emotions experienced ‘yesterday’).

The study uses satisfaction with standard of living and a measure of whether people own luxury conveniences (TV, computers etc) as proxy measures of fulfillment of material desires. The basic idea is that people learn to desire material goods because of their social situation (including the influence of advertising) and the fulfillment of these desires leads to feelings of well-being. Some groups (e.g. the Amish) seem to be reasonably happy without much income because they have relatively low aspirations for material goods.

The authors link their findings to the distinction that Tibor Scitovsky made between comfort and pleasure (‘The Joyless Economy’, 1978). They suggest that ‘it may be that’ comforts increase life evaluations whereas pleasures increase reports of positive feelings:
‘Comfort comes from having one’s needs and desires continuously fulfilled, whereas pleasures come from fulfilling unmet needs and from stimulating and challenging activities. One source of pleasure according to Scitovsky is social stimulation, which he suggested lies largely outside the realm of economics. Novelty and learning can be sources of pleasure too. Thus, Scitovsky’s reasoning is in accord with our findings that wealth predicts life satisfaction, and social relationships and learning new things predict positive feelings’ p.59 .

I found that passage fairly challenging, but reading it didn’t give me positive feelings. I don’t have too many problems with the idea that being satisfied with your standard of living is closely related to comfort, but there are other factors related to economic activity - such as a sense of achievement - that may also make an important contribution to life satisfaction.

A couple of years ago I attempted to identify how necessary various domains of quality of life are to high satisfaction with life as a whole using data compiled by the Australian Centre on Quality of Life (reported here). The criterion used was the percentage of respondents with high satisfaction with life as a whole among those with low ratings on particular domains of quality of life. The percentages were follows (ranked in order of importance of each domain): personal relationships 10.8%, achieving in life 11.8%, standard of living 12.8%, future security 15.6%, health 15.9%, community connectedness 19.0% and safety 20.3%. The results suggest that ‘achieving in life’ at least as necessary to high life satisfaction for Australians as is ‘standard of living’.

I do not claim that working for money is the only way that people can obtain a strong sense of achievement, but it would be very surprising if this feeling is unrelated to economic activity.

I could also have mentioned the neurological evidence that humans (and rats and presumably other animals as well) get more satisfaction from actively working for a reward than from getting it without doing anything to earn it. (See: Gregory Burns, 'Satisfaction', 2005, pp. 43-45.)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Is economic growth causing the Chinese to become discontented or more optimistic?

In my last post I suggested that the reasons why rapid economic growth has not resulted in increased average life satisfaction in China over the last couple of decades have more to do with rising aspirations than with increased income inequality. In this post I want to consider those issues further.

My first point is that in recent years the Chinese have been about as satisfied with life as people in most other countries with comparable income levels. This shows up clearly in charts in Angus Deaton’s article, ‘Income, health and well-being around the world’ (“Journal of Economic Perspectives”, 22 (2)).

Second, survey evidence is not consistent with growing discontent caused by rising inequality - or by anything else. According to recent Gallup data about 66 percent of Chinese are satisfied with their standard of living and 83 percent say that their standard of living is getting better. A paper by Nicole Naurath show that in 2008 over 80 percent of Chinese claimed that economic conditions were getting better in the city or area where they live and that it was also getting better as a place to live.

Third, there is evidence that life satisfaction in China is more strongly influenced by satisfaction with income growth (i.e. satisfaction with income now compared with income in the past) than with either absolute or relative incomes. The results of a study by Lina Song and Simon Appleton do not support the view that dissatisfaction with relative income is a major cause of social discontent in China (“Life Satisfaction in Urban China”, IZA DP: 3443, 2008).

Fourth, Andrew Deaton found in his cross-country study, cited above, that while level of per capita income has a positive effect on life satisfaction, economic growth has a negative effect. His results suggest that it would be normal for the negative effect of economic growth to outweigh the positive effects of increases in income levels in countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth (see Table 2 in his article). Deaton argues that his results are consistent with life satisfaction responding to the long-term average income, as in a permanent income model of life satisfaction.

Fifth, the ratings that the Chinese give to the quality of their lives five years ago and five years into the future suggest that large upward revisions are occurring in their aspirations. The Gallup data for 2008 indicates that the Chinese rated their lives five years ago less highly than just about every country in the world outside Africa. The rating they give to their lives five years ahead is higher than that in some western European countries. When they appraise their current quality of life in five years time they will realize that they still have somewhat further to go before attaining “the best possible life”. But they are not likely to become discontented while they continue to experience the economic growth they have come to expect.

I think the lesson to be learned from consideration of the relationship between average life satisfaction and rising per capita incomes in China is that the failure of life satisfaction to rise with income does not necessarily imply discontent with the consequences of economic growth. Those who suggest that economic growth has led to widespread discontent in China are mistaken. Economic growth has merely cursed the Chinese with great expectations.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Chinese are becoming wealthier, so why aren't they happier?

This is the question raised in a recent article in the Journal of Happiness Studies: “The China puzzle: falling happiness in a rising economy”, by Hilke Brockman, Jan Delhey, Christian Weizel and Hao Yuan (V10, 4, 2009).

The focus of the study is the decade from 1990 to 2000. Even though real per capita GDP in China was 2.8 times higher in 2000 than in 1990, the percentage of Chinese describing themselves as very happy declined from 28 percent to 12 percent and the average life satisfaction rating fell from 7.3 to 6.5 (on the WVS 10 point scale).

The authors consider three possible explanations: anomie (powerlessness), political disaffection (declining trust in government) and relative deprivation (frustration because increased income inequality resulted in a higher proportion of the population with below average incomes). Anomie is measured by survey data on the lack of a feeling of free choice and control over the way you live your life. Political disaffection is measured by survey data on lack of trust in the government and parliament. Survey data on financial dissatisfaction (dissatisfaction with the financial situation of your household) is used as a proxy for relative deprivation.

To cut a long story short, the authors conclude that relative deprivation provides the best explanation because the decline in life satisfaction is strongly associated with a decline in financial satisfaction. (A fuller summary of the article is available on Psyblog )

The main problem I have with this conclusion is that data presented in the article suggests that average life satisfaction of high income earners declined along with the life satisfaction of those on lower incomes. There was no reason for the high income earners to feel relative deprivation.

When I look closely at the data it seems to me that the main puzzle is not why average life satisfaction in China was lower in 2000 than in 1990, but why such a high proportion of Chinese were recorded as satisfied with life in 1990. This figure, 68 percent, was higher than in such high income countries as Austria, France, Germany and Japan.

When you look at average life satisfaction of people in different age groups (Fig. 1) older people seem to have been much happier than young people in 1990 and the situation has been partially reversed since then. A comparison of Figure 1 and Figure 2 shows similar patterns for life satisfaction and financial satisfaction. This suggests to me that the apparent decline in average life satisfaction between 1990 and 2000 might possibly be attributable to perceptions by older people that their financial security had declined for some reason e.g. concerns that as a result of social changes young people might be less likely to support them in their old age.

Even if we disregard the 1990 data, however, it is apparent from the Figures that we are still left with the problem of explaining why average life satisfaction and financial satisfaction has not increased since the mid 1990s. The decline in consumption as a percentage of GDP from about 50 percent around 1980 to about 32 percent in recent years cannot provide a complete explanation, because this has not prevented real per capita consumption from increasing substantially.

My guess is that the failure of average life satisfaction to rise in China is associated with a change in the benchmarks that people use to assess their current well-being. In 1990 many people in China may have been using past living standards as the benchmark in assessing their current satisfaction with life. Since then, however, their aspirations have probably risen as they have come to view the living standards enjoyed in high income countries as attainable in the foreseeable future. If I am right most Chinese people would probably agree that “they have never had it so good”, to borrow an unsuccessful political slogan. But those old enough to remember what life was like 30 years ago would probably rather forget about that.

Note: A follow-up post on this topic is here.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Is the quality of life in New Zealand over-rated?

Some New Zealanders might say that this is a question that only an Australian could ask, but it seems to me to be a good way to raise the issue that I want to discuss. (I hope that when I look back on this in a few days time it will still seem like a good idea!)

The ratings that I am writing about are the ladder of life ratings from the Gallup World Poll – the top step of the ladder represents the best possible life and the bottom step represents the worst possible life. But I could be referring to any of a range of surveys that ask people to place a numerical rating on how happy they are or on how satisfied they are with their lives.

I do not intend to argue that New Zealanders have a peculiar propensity to over-rate their satisfaction with their lives. The issue I want to discuss is what it means when surveys show that New Zealanders are just as satisfied with their lives as people in the U.S. even though average incomes in NZ are only about two-thirds of the U.S. level. I propose to compare the impact of income differences and other factors on the survey measures of subjective well-being in order to enable readers to consider whether the impacts attributable to income differences provide an accurate measure of its impact on the quality of lives.

It is now possible to make fairly accurate comparisons of the impact of income and other factors on average ratings of subjective well-being at a national level. Recent research by John Helliwell, Christopher Barrington-Leigh, Anthony Harris and Haifang Huang has shown that a high proportion of differences in average life evaluations between countries can be explained statistically by differences in a relatively small number of variables reflecting social, institutional and economic circumstances of life (See Table 3, ‘International Evidence on the Social Context of Well-being’, Working paper 14720, NBER, 2009). The most important variables are income (log of per capita GDP), friends (the proportion of survey participants who have relatives or friends they can count on for help when they are in trouble), freedom (the proportion who satisfied with their freedom to choose what they do with their lives) and corruption ( responses to questions relating to whether corruption is widespread throughout government and business).

In the Figure below I have used these research results to show reasons why average survey measures of subjective well-being in several countries differ from the U.S. ratings.

The net differences from U.S. ratings are shown next to the label for each country. If you focus on New Zealand you can see that the perception of NZers that their country is relatively free of corruption outweighs the negative impact on survey responses of the fact that average incomes in NZ are substantially lower than the U.S. average.

If you consider that corruption is as big a problem in the U.S as, for example, in Greece, you might think that this provides an accurate depiction of the relative impacts of income differences and corruption on the quality of life in New Zealand and the U.S. However, when I look at the expert ratings of corruption levels in Transparency International’s corruption index, the U.S. doesn’t look too bad. The rating of the U.S. in this index (7.3) is lower than Denmark and NZ (both on 9.3) and Australia (8.7) but well above Italy (4.8) and Greece (4.7). (It is also interesting that Greeks do not perceive that their corruption problem to be any worse than that in he U.S. and that NZers do not perceive themselves to be as free of corruption as the Danes).

The point is that the influence of various factors on the survey ratings of quality of life depends on the way they are perceived. The ratings are more like emotional responses than dispassionate evaluations. It seems to me that self-reports of how people feel about their lives tell us about their emotional states - which are an important component of well-being but do not tell the whole story.

One way to test survey ratings is to ask ourselves to what extent we would be prepared to rely on them in making decisions affecting our own well-being. It seems to me that income may be more important to people when they make decisions affecting their well-being than when they answer questionnaires about the quality of their lives. If you were in Europe contemplating a choice between moving your family to either the U.S. or NZ, would you consider the importance of differences in average income levels to be adequately reflected in survey ratings of the quality of life?

Survey ratings can also be tested by comparing them with actual migration patterns where free migration is allowed - as between New Zealand and Australia. Migration statistics for New Zealand show that in recent years permanent and long-term departures to Australia have exceeded arrivals from Australia by a factor of more than 3:1.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Would a chain index provide a better guide to change in the quality of life?

A chain index is an index that is constructed from information about changes in a variable from year to year, rather than by measuring absolute levels of the variable. A chain index is likely to be more accurate if we can measure change from year to year more accurately than we can measure absolute levels.

I think there is reason to believe that survey information yields more accurate information on change in quality of life than on absolute quality of life. I have explained why in a previous post (here).

In the following chart I have used information published by the Pew Research Center to construct a chain index of the quality of life from survey data on respondents assessments of their current quality of life and their assessments of their quality of life five years earlier (here). This provided estimated of the change in quality of life over the previous five years. The data on change in quality of life was annualized and converted to percentage changes. After gaps in the data were filled in by interpolation the series was converted into the form of the chain index shown below.

The happiness index shown in the chart is constructed from the Pew Research Center’s survey data on current quality of life.

The quality of life index shown in the chart actually shows a larger increase than the increase in real GDP per capita over this period. I therefore find it difficult to accept that the increase in quality of life was actually as large as is shown. The main point of the exercise is to suggest that the quality of life in the U.S. probably increased over this period by a larger magnitude than indicated by the happiness index shown in the chart.

(Research presented on this blog – as on any other blog - should be viewed with more caution than peer-reviewed research presented in academic journals. For quality assurance purposes I am prepared to make detailed results of research available to anyone who wants them and the data available to anyone who wants to replicate studies.)

Can our quality of life improve without us becoming happier?

Surveys undertaken by the Pew Research Centre enable comparisons to be made between ratings of quality of life at the present time and ratings of quality of life five years ago. The results for the U.S. (here) indicate that while respondent’s average ratings of current quality of life had moved up and down by small amounts when asked at various times over the last 40 years, they consistently reported that their quality of life was substantially worse five years ago - indicating that they perceived that they had experienced ongoing improvements in the quality of their lives.

These results suggest that people can perceive that the quality of their lives is improving even though their reports of quality of life at different points of time indicate that there has been no increase. Some people might suggest that this means that people have faulty memories of the quality of life they enjoyed in the past. I acknowledge that memories can be faulty, but I see no reason why people should systematically view the past as having been worse than the present. On the other hand, I can think of a good reason why current reports of quality of life may not show much change over time in the face of objective evidence of improvements in standard of living.

The use of survey information to measure the current quality of life involves the implicit assumption that when people rate their quality of life they do so relative to absolute standards. Respondents in the Pew survey are prompted to think in terms of a ladder of life in which the top step represents the best possible life and the bottom step represents the worst possible life. The use of successive surveys to measure change in the quality of life entails the assumption that perceptions about what constitutes the best possible life and the worst possible life remain fixed over time.

When you think about this, however, how can it be possible for anyone in a relatively high-income country to know what the best possible life, or the worst possible life, might be like throughout their own life-time? If you asked someone to rate how satisfied they were with life in the 1940s they would not have had much idea of the kind of life they might be able to live in 60 years time. They would not have known that many of the household appliances and communications devices that we now have would be within reach within their own life-time. They might have wished that such things could be invented and made affordable – just as I wished as a child in the 1950s that I could have a 2 way wrist radio like the one Dick Tracey had – but I don’t think such things would have been contemplated as actually attainable.

It is widely accepted among happiness researchers that in high income countries increases in standards of living may not translate to increases in happiness because aspirations tend to rise as incomes rise. I am not sure that many have realized, however, that if this process involves a change in perceptions about the best possible life it is changing the scale against which people are assessing their quality of life. Thus a person who felt that her quality of life had improved over time might report ratings of her quality of life at different points in time which indicated that she had stayed on the same rung of the ladder. The apparent conflict of perceptions has occurred because the ladder has shifted upwards.

If our aim is to use surveys to measure of happiness, as an emotion, it may be appropriate for the ladder (measurement scale) to move upward as perceptions change about the best possible life. If we are attempting to measure quality of life, however, we should recognise that an upward movement of the ladder - which occurs because of a change in perceptions of the best possible life - is itself evidence of improvement in the quality of life. In my view we should accept what people say when they report ongoing improvements in the quality of their lives and also to accept that this will not necessarily make them feel any happier than in the past.

In my next post I explore the possibility of using perceptions about changes in quality of life to construct a chain index showing how the perceived quality of life has changed over time.