What would you trade to be happy?

To better reflect people’s preferences, governments would be advised to spend more on healthcare
Happiness. Creative Commons

What are people willing to sacrifice to be happy? Everything apart from their health, according to new research from Professor Paul Dolan of the Department of Social Policy and colleagues.

Using a sample of 13,000 people from the U.K. and U.S., researchers investigated whether individuals are willing to trade-off levels of happiness by sacrificing income, physical health, family status, career success or education.

The study, published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organisation, posed a range of hypothetical questions to test preferences for different lifestyles using the concept of subjective well-being — an individual’s assessment of how they think and feel. People were presented with a range of scenarios that were either higher or lower in levels of subjective well-being.

Overall, the results suggested that about two-thirds of respondents preferred lives that were higher in subjective well-being, and valued happiness above all other dimensions of their lives tested, with the sole exception of good health.

In the survey, respondents were 25 per cent more likely to prioritise life satisfaction over their income, and approximately 34 per cent more likely to value higher life satisfaction over career success, relative to the probability of choosing life satisfaction over health. The authors noted that this emphasises the strength of preference for good health over other aspects of people’s lives.

When the survey results were analysed by socio-economic status, the authors found relatively wealthier respondents were less likely to choose lifestyles higher in subjective well-being, suggesting that individuals with higher earnings are less likely to value their happiness overall.

Similarly, higher levels of education showed well-educated individuals were less likely to choose a life higher in subjective well-being. Family statuses that included children or a partner, as opposed to being single, were less likely to value happiness, suggesting that in some situations families could act as a substitute for lower levels of happiness.

In addition, the researchers found that older respondents were significantly more likely to place a higher value on happiness than younger respondents, suggesting that an individual’s priorities are likely to change as they age.

Professor Paul Dolan, professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, says: “It is well-established that happiness is important, but we have tried to find out how much it really matters to people, and what they are willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

“We found that when compared to other dimensions in people’s lives, health is the most important. A question mark remains over whether people really believe that you can be in poor health and be happy, but there is clearly something special about health and it matters to a lot of people.

“So if policies were to better reflect people’s preferences, governments would be advised to spend more on health and happiness and worry less about cash and careers.”

Behind the article

Would you choose to be happy? Trade offs between happiness and the other dimensions of life in a large population survey by Professor Matthew Adlera, Professor Paul Dolan, and Dr Georgios Kavetsos was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization in May 2017.