Measuring and Understanding Subjective Well-Being

John F. Helliwell, Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh

NBER Working Paper No. 15887
Issued in April 2010
NBER Program(s):   PE   POL

Increasing attention is being paid in academic, policy, and public arenas to subjective measures of well-being. This promising trend represents a shift towards measuring positive outcomes in psychology and greater realism in the study of economic behaviour. After a general review of past and potential uses for subjective well-being data, and a discussion of why some economists have previously been sceptical of SWB data, we present global and Canadian examples from our own research to illustrate what can be learned. Differences in subjective well-being will be shown to be large and sustained across individuals, communities, provinces and nations. Although the patterns of subjective well-being are very different across Canada than across the world, we show that in both cases the differences can be fairly well accounted for by the same set of life circumstances. Our examples of policy-relevant research findings include new accountings of the differences in individual-level SWB assessments around the world and across Canada. These highlight the importance of social factors whose role has otherwise been hard to quantify in income-equivalent terms.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w15887

Published: Measuring and Understanding Subjective Well-Being John F. Helliwell and Christopher P. Barrington-Leigh Canadian Journal of Economics, Vol. 43, Issue 3, pp. 729-753.

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