Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 443–469 | Cite as

Do Envy and Compassion Pave the Way to Unhappiness? Social Preferences and Life Satisfaction in a Spanish City

  • Antonio M. Espín
  • Dolores Moreno-Herrero
  • José Sánchez-Campillo
  • José A. Rodríguez MartínEmail author
Research Paper


Mounting evidence shows that people’s self-reported life satisfaction (LS) is negatively related to income inequality. Under the interpretation that the relationship between macro-level variables and LS reflects individuals’ social preferences, this finding indicates that most people display inequality-averse preferences. We explore the relationship between self-reports on inequality aversion and LS in a citywide representative survey/experiment conducted in Spain. If self-reported well-being can be used to infer people’s social preferences, LS should correlate negatively with both “envy” and “compassion” scores (i.e., how much one suffers from disadvantageous and advantageous inequality, respectively). We find that LS relates negatively to envy but positively to compassion, which would imply that suffering from observing poorer others, paradoxically, increases well-being. Using an incentivized Dictator Game as a measure of generous behavior, we reject the hypothesis that the positive link between compassion and LS is actually driven by generosity. We discuss how these findings could indicate that the way LS is used to assess social preferences in the population should be revised.


Competitiveness Dictator game Generosity Happiness Inequality aversion Life satisfaction 



This paper has benefited from comments by Filippos Exadaktylos, Francisco Gómez García and Hannes Schwandt. Thanks are also due to Pablo Brañas-Garza for encouraging this project and for his valuable suggestions. Financial support from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (ECO2013-44879-R) and the Government of Andalusia Project for Excellence in Research (P12.SEJ.01436) is gratefully acknowledged.

Supplementary material

10902_2016_9828_MOESM1_ESM.doc (520 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 520 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antonio M. Espín
    • 1
    • 2
  • Dolores Moreno-Herrero
    • 3
  • José Sánchez-Campillo
    • 3
  • José A. Rodríguez Martín
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Economics DepartmentMiddlesex University Business SchoolLondonUK
  2. 2.Granada Lab of Behavioral Economics (GLoBE)Universidad de GranadaGranadaSpain
  3. 3.Departamento de Economía AplicadaUniversidad de GranadaGranadaSpain

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