What do Happiness Data Mean? Theory and Survey Evidence Journal Article uri icon



  • Abstract; What utility notion—e.g. flow/lifetime, self/family-centered—do self-reported well-being (SWB) questions measure? Existing applications make different assumptions regarding the (i) life domains, (ii) time horizons, and (iii) other-regarding preferences captured by SWB data. To obtain relevant evidence, we ask survey respondents what they had in mind regarding (i)–(iii) when answering commonly used—life satisfaction, happiness, ladder—and new SWB questions. We find that respondents’ self-reports differ from researchers’ assumptions and differ across SWB questions and sociodemographic groups. At the same time, simple SWB-question wording tweaks are effective in moving self-reports toward desired interpretations. We outline actionable suggestions for SWB researchers. (JEL: D69, D90, I31)

publication date

  • December 11, 2023

has restriction

  • green

Date in CU Experts

  • February 3, 2024 2:29 AM

Full Author List

  • Benjamin DJ; Debnam Guzman J; Fleurbaey M; Heffetz O; Kimball M

author count

  • 5

Other Profiles

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 1542-4766

Electronic International Standard Serial Number (EISSN)

  • 1542-4774

Additional Document Info

start page

  • 2377

end page

  • 2412


  • 21


  • 6