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Reference-Dependency of Happiness Ratings

Elsy Verhofstadt, Brent Bleys and Luc Van Ootegem

Journal of Happiness Studies, 2015, vol. 16, issue 6, 1437-1454

Abstract: A traditional happiness question does not provide a frame of reference as to how respondents should rate their current level of happiness. Respondents can consider different things when answering the question—for instance, how well their expectations are being met, how they are doing compared to the past or compared to their peers. In this paper, the impact of the frame of reference in happiness questions is explored using a subjective well-being survey conducted in Flanders in 2011. The survey includes three happiness questions that are used to explore both the quantitative and the qualitative differences between the different happiness measures. The first question is a traditional happiness question that uses fixed anchors (0 for “extremely unhappy” and 10 for “extremely happy”). The other two questions use a self-anchoring scale—either the scale ends (SASE) are defined by the respondents as their worst and best moments in life [inspired by Bernheim’s ACSA (Bioethics 13(3/4):272–287, 1999 )] or the scale center (SASC) is defined as the happiness rating of the average world citizen. We find quantitative differences between the happiness measures, as the reported happiness using a self-anchoring scale center—the average world citizen—leads to a lower reported level of happiness. We also find qualitative differences between the three happiness measures. First, the traditional happiness measure is influenced more by personality traits than the two measures with a self-anchoring scale. Second, as the SASE measure uses an internal frame of reference—the best and worst moments in life—it is determined more by variables related to the life experiences of respondents (e.g. having a relation). The SASC measure is better predicted by materialistic variables (e.g. income) and living conditions (e.g. being able to act according to one’s personal vision on life) as respondents are comparing their life situation to the one of the average world citizen. In summary, our preliminary results show that it is meaningful to elicit happiness ratings using more complex procedures such as self-anchoring. Further research is needed to explore the impact of references in happiness questions—e.g. by using an experimental survey design. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Keywords: Happiness; Reference-dependency; Self-anchoring (search for similar items in EconPapers)
Date: 2015
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Citations: View citations in EconPapers (2)

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DOI: 10.1007/s10902-014-9567-7

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