Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-Being: Evidence from the USA

Department of Economics, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK.
Science (Impact Factor: 33.61). 12/2009; 327(5965):576-9. DOI: 10.1126/science.1180606
Source: PubMed


A huge research literature, across the behavioral and social sciences, uses information on individuals’ subjective well-being.
These are responses to questions—asked by survey interviewers or medical personnel—such as, “How happy do you feel on a scale
from 1 to 4?” Yet there is little scientific evidence that such data are meaningful. This study examines a 2005–2008 Behavioral
Risk Factor Surveillance System random sample of 1.3 million U.S. citizens. Life satisfaction in each U.S. state is measured.
Across America, people’s answers trace out the same pattern of quality of life as previously estimated, from solely nonsubjective
data, in one branch of economics (so-called “compensating differentials” neoclassical theory, originally from Adam Smith).
There is a state-by-state match (r = 0.6, P < 0.001) between subjective and objective well-being. This result has some potential to help to unify disciplines.

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    • "Second, the graphs in Figure 3 are comparable in shape notwithstanding their diverging trends in the period between 2000 and the mid-2000s. This pattern, I argue, is consistent with the view that subjective and objective evaluations are just alternative measurements of the same phenomenon (Kahneman, Wakker, and Sarin 1997; Diener and Seligman 2004; Oswald and Wu 2010). I further argue that the similarity in shape is a type of evidence on the reliability (Larsen and Fredrickson 1999; Kahneman and Krueger 2006; Krueger and Schkade 2008) and validity (Costa and McCrae 1988; Ekman, Davidson, and Friesen 1990; Pavot et al. 1991; Sandvik, Diener, and Seidlitz 1993) of the subjective measure of economic ill-being. "
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    • "71 -85). Oswald and Wu (2010) provide a more recent review. Reliability estimates suggest that the reliability is high. "
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    • "For example, Stedman (2006) and Simpson and Siguaw (2008) found that seasonal migrants reported higher levels of place attachment to their seasonal destination than did the destinations' permanent residents. Considering that numerous factors, such as amount of sunshine (Oswald and Wu 2010), travel, and activities (Dolnicar, Yanamandram, and Cliff 2012; McCabe and Johnson 2013; Sirgy et al. 2011), are related to SWL and that seasonal migrants elect to travel to the same destination repeatedly (Viallon 2012; Walters 2002), then seasonal migrants likely enjoy higher levels of SWL at their seasonal destinations than at their hometowns. Although not previously tested, the following hypothesis seems likely: "
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