, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 115-139

Was Life Better in the “Good Old Days”? Intertemporal Judgments of Life Satisfaction

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Abstract

Intertemporal judgments are paired comparisons between the present time and some other time (e.g. “How satisfied are you with your life these days compared to five years ago?”). These judgments can provide evidence on the question, “Is life satisfaction in developed nations increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant?” This paper provides the first review of intertemporal judgments of life satisfaction, and reports a meta-analysis of 71 such studies from 9 developed countries. Results show that in every survey that asks people how happy their own lives are now compared to some past time, a majority says they are happier now than in the past. The meta-analysis also shows that this question must be carefully distinguished from asking about quality of life of the average person, which shows a majority believing that life was better for the “average person” in the past. These two beliefs are logically inconsistent, since the average respondent actually says their satisfaction is higher now. We consider several sources of bias that may influence these results, including cognitive processing heuristics, self-appraisal (desirability) bias, and information bias in media news.