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Stephen Wu
Stephen Wu

Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-being Studied

Wu Research Appears in Science

Contact Holly Foster 315-859-4068
Posted December 17, 2009
Tags Economics Faculty

States that are ranked highly in an objective quality of life measure also have the highest average levels of self-reported life satisfaction. In other words, state-by-state rankings of measurements such as sunshine, state and national parks, crime rates, pollution and the cost of living run parallel with rankings of personal happiness.

Co-authors Associate Professor of Economics Stephen Wu with Andrew J. Oswald of Warwick University prove this in their new study “Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-being: Evidence from the USA,” published in Science magazine on Dec. 17. The co-authors used data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (published by the Center for Disease Control) to construct state rankings of average levels of happiness and compare these with state rankings of quality of life indicators (taken from a previously published study).

“Many people will probably focus on the actual state by state rankings themselves, which I believe are interesting,” said Wu. “However, I think the more compelling finding is that people's self-reported measures of happiness have a very strong relationship to objective measures of quality of life. The evidence shows that states that are ranked highly in an objective quality of life measure also have the highest average levels of self-reported life satisfaction. This is true using two totally independent sets of data.

“There is a very large and growing literature that uses self-reported happiness as a way to gauge how well people (and countries) are doing. Many policy makers suggest that we should not focus exclusively on GDP or other dollar based measures of growth and economic well-being, but should incorporate measures of happiness (Gross National Happiness) into assessing the progress of societies and countries. However, until this study, there has been no true validation of these self-reported measures of life satisfaction. In fact, there are some skeptics who don't think these measures are necessarily informative. Our study suggests that they do indeed have value and that subjective well-being data contain genuine information about the objective quality of human lives.

“Measuring happiness might seem like a very difficult task. For one, there are multiple dimensions to happiness, or life satisfaction, so it may seem simplistic to boil down this complex measure into a simple 1-4 scale (very satisfied with life down to very dissatisfied with life). Nonetheless, the simple measure used is quite powerful,” said Wu.

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