Daniel J. Benjamin & Ori Heffetz: What Do Happiness Data Mean? Evidence from a Survey of Happiness Respondents

Daniel J. Benjamin, Professor (Research) of Economics, Center for Economic and Social Research, University of Southern California

Ori Heffetz, Associate Professor of Economics, Cornell University, Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management & The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Department of Economics


Do happiness questions measure a normatively appealing notion of individual welfare? Do they measure the same notion across respondents? We ask respondents how much weight various factors had on their answers to self-reported well-being (SWB) survey questions, including commonly used measures of life satisfaction and happiness.

Respondents put most weight on the immediate present and on themselves—but not enough to interpret SWB data as measuring common notions of flow utility and self-centered utility. We find differences in weights across SWB questions and across sociodemographic groups.

Controlling for these cross-group differences meaningfully impacts estimates of cross-group SWB differences.

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