Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys
Are subjective well-being (SWB) measures a good empirical proxy for utility? We evaluate one necessary assumption: that people’s preferences coincide with what they predict will maximize their SWB. Our method is to present survey respondents with hypothetical scenarios and elicit both choice and predicted SWB rankings of two alternatives. While choice and predicted SWB rankings usually coincide, we find systematic reversals. Furthermore, we identify factors—such as predicted sense of purpose, control over one‘s life, family happiness, and social status—that help explain choice controlling for predicted SWB. We explore how our findings vary with the SWB measure and the choice situation.
A data appendix is available at http://www.nber.org/data-appendix/w16489
This paper was revised on December 5, 2011
Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w16489
Published: Benjamin, Daniel J., Ori Heffetz, Miles S. Kimball, and Alex Rees-Jones. 2012. What Do You Think Would Make You Happier? What Do You Think You Would Choose? American Economic Review, 102(5): 2083–2110. [SSRN version] An older version circulated as Do People Seek to Maximize Happiness? Evidence from New Surveys. [Web Appendix] [NBER WP w16489 at SSRN]
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