People dancing on a beach

Would you choose to be happy?

Recent research from PBS

Happiness: what is it? Do you want it? What would you give to get it? 

Should the study of happiness be overhauled?

The study of subjective well-being and the evidence for what causes it has become an important and powerful tool in shaping our society. Research from Paul Dolan (London School of Economics) Georgios Kavetsos (Queen Mary College, University of London) and Matthew D. Adler (Duke University, USA) investigate the understanding of its importance to us in the first place. The authors conducted a large scale study of nearly 6,000 individuals in the UK and US to find out the importance of happiness (or the more general term, subjective wellbeing, which is more often used by academics and policy makers) compared to other goals that motivate people, such as being rich, healthy, successful and educated.

The study asked respondents to answer a number of questions that in each case asked them to choose between two alternative lives, such as described below:

  • Life A: You feel satisfied with your life. You do not have enough money to get by.
  • Life B: You do not feel satisfied with your life. You do not have enough money to get by.

Across both the UK and the US, individuals did generally prefer high levels of subjective well-being. The exception was with health, where many people chose to be healthy over being happy. The research also showed that people were more concerned with their day-to-day happiness rather than their overall life satisfaction or worthwhileness (evaluative happiness). So day-to-day happiness needs to be better measured and accounted for in policy making. One of the most interesting differences between groups of respondents is that richer people generally prefer money over happiness. We can speculate that once you get rich and it does not make you as happy as you hoped, you find it easier to pretend that happiness doesn’t matter rather than to question the goal of getting rich in the first place.

We know a lot about the determinants of happiness but much less about whether happiness should determine policy. From this study, it would seem that happiness matters a lot more to people than being rich, successful or educated – but that health matters just about as much as happiness.

Adler, Matthew D. and Dolan, Paul and Kavetsos, Georgios (2017) Would you choose to be happy? Tradeoffs between happiness and the other dimensions of life in a large population survey Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. ISSN 0167-2681 (In Press).