Journal of Happiness Studies

, Volume 19, Issue 8, pp 2225–2241 | Cite as

Ignoring Easterlin: Why Easterlin’s Correlation Findings Need Not Matter to Public Policy

  • Gil HerschEmail author
Research Paper


Many believe that the lack of correlation between happiness and income, first discovered by Richard Easterlin in 1974, entails the conclusion that well-being policies should be made based on happiness measures, rather than income measures. I argue that distinguishing between how well-being is characterized and how that characterization is measured introduces ways of denying the conclusion that policies should be made based on happiness measures. It is possible to avoid the conclusion either by denying that well-being hedonism is true or by denying that happiness measures are a better way of operationalizing hedonism than income measures are. By making these possibilities explicit, we find that less hinges on whether income and happiness are correlated than is often thought.


Easterlin Well-being policy Operationalism Hedonism 



I thank Nancy Cartwright, Saba Bazargan-Forward, Craig Agule, Alexandre Marcellesi, Casey McCoy, Martin Binder, Kelsey O’Connor, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on earlier drafts. I also thank the audience at the 17th INEM/CHESS Summer School in Economics and Philosophy for helpful comments.


  1. Adler, M. D. (2013). Happiness surveys and public policy: What’s the use? Duke Law Journal, 62, 1509–1601.Google Scholar
  2. Adler, M. D., Dolan, P., & Kavetos, G. (2015). Would you choose to be happy? Tradeoffs between happiness and the other dimensions of life in a large population survey. CEP Discussion Paper No 1366.Google Scholar
  3. Angner, E. (2011). Are subjective measures of well-being ‘direct’? Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 89(1), 115–130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Benjamin, D. J., Heffetz, O., Kimball, M. S., & Rees-Jones, A. (2012). What do you think would make you happier? What do you think you would choose? American Economic Review, 102(5), 2083–2110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Benjamin, D. J., Heffetz, O., Kimball, M. S., & Szembrot, N. (2014). Beyond happiness and satisfaction: Toward well-being indices based on stated preference. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2698–2735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bernanke, B. (2012). Economic measurement. In 32nd General conference of the international association for research in income and wealth. Retrieved from:
  7. Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2008). Hypertension and happiness across nations. Journal of Health Economics, 27(2), 218–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bok, D. C. (2010). The politics of happiness: What government can learn from the new research on well-being. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A symposium (pp. 287–302). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  10. Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Broome, J. (1999). Ethics out of economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cameron, D. (2010). PM speech on wellbeing. London. Retrieved from:
  13. Cartwright, N., & Bradburn, N. M. (2012). A theory of measurement. Working paper.Google Scholar
  14. Cartwright, N., & Hardie, J. (2012). Evidence-based policy: A practical guide to doing it better. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Chang, H. (2004). Inventing temperature: Measurement and scientific progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chang, H., & Cartwright, N. (2008). Measurement. In S. Psilos & M. Curd (Eds.), The Routledge companion to philosophy of science. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  17. De Neve, J.-E., Landeghem, B. V., Ward, G. W., Norton, M. I., Keulenaer, F. D., & Kavetsos, G. (2015). The asymmetric experience of positive and negative economic growth: Global evidence using subjective well-being data. IZA Discussion Paper (Vol. 8914).Google Scholar
  18. Deaton, A. (2008). Income, health, and well-being around the world: Evidence from the Gallup World Poll. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 22(2), 53–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Deaton, A. (2012). The financial crisis and the well-being of Americans. Oxford Economic Papers, 64(1), 1–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Diener, E. (2009). Assessing well-being: The collected works of Ed Diener. New York: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Diener, E., Kahneman, D., & Helliwell, J. (2010). International differences in well-being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., Schimmack, U., & Helliwell, J. (2009). Well-being for public policy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. The American Psychologist, 61(4), 305–314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Diener, E., & Myers, D. G. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6(1), 10–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Dolan, P., & Kavetsos, G. (2016). Happy talk: Mode of administration effects on subjective well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(3), 1273–1291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Easterlin, R. A. (1974). Does rapid economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. Nations and Households in Economic Growth, 89, 89–125.Google Scholar
  28. Easterlin, R. A. (1995). Will rising the income of all increase the happiness of all? Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, 27, 35–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Easterlin, R. A. (2003). Explaining happiness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(19), 11176–11183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Easterlin, R. A. (2005). Feeding the illusion of growth and happiness: A reply to Hagerty and Veenhoven. Social Indicators Research, 74(3), 429–443.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Easterlin, R. A. (2013). Happiness, growth, and public policy. Economic Inquiry, 51(1), 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Easterlin, R. A. (2016). Paradox lost? USC Dornsife Institute for New Economic Thinking Working Paper. No. 16-02 (pp. 1–41).Google Scholar
  33. Easterlin, R. A., McVey, L. A., Switek, M., Sawangfa, O., & Zweig, J. S. (2010). The happiness-income paradox revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(52), 22463–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Easterlin, R. A., Morgan, R., Switek, M., & Wang, F. (2012). China’s life satisfaction, 1990–2010. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(25), 9775–9780.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation, chapter 16. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: Foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 302–329). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  36. Frey, B. S., & Stutzer, A. (2013). Happiness and economics: How the economy and institutions affect human well-being (Vol. 53). Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Griffin, J. (1986). Well-being: Its meaning, measurement and moral importance. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  38. Hagerty, M. R., & Veenhoven, R. (2003). Wealth and happiness revisited. Social Indicators Research, 64(April), 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Haybron, D., & Tiberius, V. (2015). Well-being policy: What standard of well-being? Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 1(04), 712–733.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Heffetz, O., & Rabin, M. (2013). American Economic Association conclusions regarding cross-group differences in happiness depend on difficulty of reaching respondents. The American Economic Review, 103(7), 3001–3021.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hersch, G. (2015). Can an evidential account justify relying on preferences for well-being policy? Journal of Economic Methodology, 22(3), 280–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hirsch, F. (1977). Social limits to growth. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  43. Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(38), 16489–16493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Krueger, A. B., & Schkade, D. A. (2008). The reliability of subjective well-being measures. Journal of Public Economics, 92(8–9), 1833–1845.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Layard, R. (2005). Lessons from a new science. London: Penguin Press.Google Scholar
  46. Layard, R. (2006). Happiness and public policy: A challenege to the profession. The Economic Journal, 116, C24–C33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lepper, H. S. (1998). Use of other-reports to validate subjective well-being measures. Social Indicators Research, 44(3), 367–379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2012). Estimating the reliability of single-item life satisfaction measures: Results from four national panel studies. Social Indicators Research, 105(3), 323–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lucas, R. E., & Lawless, N. M. (2013). Does life seem better on a sunny day? Examining the association between daily weather conditions and life satisfaction judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(5), 872–884.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Moore, A. (2013). Hedonism. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.
  51. Ng, Y. K. (2008). Happiness studies: Ways to improve comparability and some public policy implications. Economic Record, 84(265), 253–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, state and utopia. New York: Basic Book.Google Scholar
  53. OECD. (2013). OECD guidelines on measuring subjective well-Being. Paris: OECD Publishing.
  54. Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  55. Radcliff, B. (2013). The political economy of human happiness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sandvik, E., Diener, E., & Seidlitz, L. (1993). Subjective well-being: The convergence and stability of self-report and non-self-report measures. Journal of Personality, 61(3), 317–342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Schimmack, U., & Oishi, S. (2005). The influence of chronically and temporarily accessible information on life satisfaction judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(3), 395–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Schwarz, N., & Strack, F. (1999). Reports of subjective well-being: Judgemental processes and their methodological implications, chapter 4. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: Foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 61–84). New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  59. Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York: Borzoi.Google Scholar
  60. Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2008). Economic growth and subjective well-being: Reassessing the Easterlin paradox. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2008, 1–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A., & Fitoussi, J.-P. (2009). Report by the commission on the measurement of economic performance and social progress. Retreived from:
  62. Strack, F., Argyle, M., & Schwarz, N. (Eds.). (1991). Subjective well-being: An interdisciplinary perspective. Oxford: Pergamon Press.Google Scholar
  63. Sumner, L. W. (1996). Welfare, happiness & ethics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  64. Veenhoven, R. (1996). Developments in satisfaction-research. Social Indicators Research, 37(1), 1–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Veenhoven, R., & Hagerty, M. (2006). Rising happiness in nations 1946–2004: A reply to Easterlin. Social Indicators Research, 79(3), 421–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Weijers, D. (2013). Nozick’s experience machine is dead, long live the experience machine! Philosophical Psychology, 27(4), 513–535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Weimann, J., Knabe, A., & Schob, R. (2015). Measuring happiness: The economics of well-being. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  68. Woodard, C. (2012). Classifying theories of welfare. Philosophical Studies, 165(3), 787–803.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Wren-Lewis, S. (2013). Well-being as a primary good: Towards legitimate well-being policy. Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly, 31(2), 2–9.Google Scholar
  70. Zou, C., Schimmack, U., & Gere, J. (2013). The validity of well-being measures: A multiple-indicator multiple-rater model. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1247–1254.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Virgnia TechBlacksburgUSA

Personalised recommendations