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Adult happiness and prior traumatic victimization in and out of the household


A large share of the American population suffers from traumatic experiences early in life. Many adults are also victims of trauma. Using data drawn from the National Comorbidity Survey–Replication, we examine the link between self-reported happiness, a broad gauge of subjective well-being, and four types of traumatic victimization that may occur at various points in the life cycle. In particular, we consider the association between home violence, sexual assault, community violence, and stalking and subsequent victims’ adult happiness. For females and males, we find that each of these traumas significantly reduces self-reported happiness later in the life course, and for both women and men, the estimated impact of home violence is greatest. Furthermore, we find that the adverse effects of trauma on happiness are comparable to the impact of critical socioeconomic developments on happiness. Moreover, we find that experiencing more than one type of these four traumas has a greater negative impact on subsequent happiness than experiencing only one type. Our findings are robust to the inclusion of a wide range of controls, and the influence of trauma on subsequent happiness is independent of personal and family characteristics. Since happiness and mental health are closely related, our work suggests that traumatic victimization undermines overall health and well-being in the U.S.

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  1. For an overview of findings regarding the determinants of happiness see Graham (2008).

  2. The lone paper on this topic (Royse et al. 1991) simply compares mean levels of life satisfaction between those who reported being abused or neglected as a child and those who avoided such an experience for a sample of 604 persons living in Kentucky.

  3. See Margolin and Gordis (2000) for a review of this literature.

  4. Stevenson and Wolfers (2009) discuss this problem in their work identifying the trend of declining female happiness. Although they would like to know if an intermediate development like the increase in female employment is responsible, by causing stressful trade-offs for many women between work and childrearing time, they note that working is a choice and cannot be simply included as a determinant of happiness in econometric models.

  5. Researchers have also found that a respondent’s self-reported happiness is strongly associated with perceptions of the respondent’s happiness held by spouses, family members, and friends (Myers and Diener 1996, and Frey and Stutzer 2002).

  6. The NCS-R sampled 9282 individuals. These respondents spent approximately one hour completing the first component of the survey. The second part of the survey was only administered to 5692 individuals in order to reduce the direct costs of the survey as well as the time to the respondents. The subsample includes all individuals with a lifetime disorder plus a probability subsample of other respondents. Weights are used to maintain the structure of the full sample of respondents. Of these 5692 individuals a total of 5.552 individuals (3216 women and 2336 men) are included in our analysis. 140 individuals were dropped for one of the following issues: non-response to the happiness question, non-response to any of the trauma questions, questions related to the age of when any of the traumas first occurred, and observations from one state where all individuals report the same level of happiness and therefore drop out of the estimation procedure that includes state fixed effects.

  7. The distribution of responses across the five possible answers to the question In the past 30 days, how often did you feel happy? for males is: all (12 percent), most (50 percent), some (26 percent), little (9 percent), and none (2 percent). For females the distribution is: all (8 percent), most (45 percent), some (31 percent), little (12 percent), and none (4 percent).

  8. A single item measure of Happiness is used by Stevenson and Wolfers (2009) in their study of trends in female and male perspectives on happiness.

  9. Abdel-Khalek’s (2006) finding is consistent with Cummins (1995, p 196) who asserted, "if researchers are interested only in an overall life satisfaction score, there seems little benefit in asking respondents multiple questions; it seems that a single question can yield reliable and valid data".

  10. The NCS-R only collects information on home violence during childhood, since it is likely that respondents live outside of their parents’ home in adulthood.

  11. Summary statistics for the victims of each form of trauma are available upon request. Some characteristics of individuals or the families they were raised in are closely associated with forms of traumatic victimization for females and males respectively. The characteristics of the females who have suffered from any of the forms of maltreatment are similar to the full sample of females. The lone exception is the slightly elevated share of Hispanic women reporting violence in the home, 15.8 percent, relative to their share in the sample, 10.6 percent. The only other substantive differences occur for women who report having been exposed to violence in their homes while growing up. As children, these women are more likely to have been raised in poor families, less likely to have been raised by both biological parents, and more likely to have less well-educated mothers and fathers. Moreover, as adults, those women who were raised in a violent home were less likely to have continued schooling beyond high school, tend to talk with friends less often, and to have lower levels of wealth.

  12. We also include a missing variable indicator for every variable used in a model specification, rather than drop observations when a respondent did not provide information on a variable. The only exception to this is that we dropped observations where information on education was missing.

  13. In a seminal paper, Easterlin (1974) presents evidence that as average income in society rises, average happiness increases, but that each additional gain in income for the typical person in society leads to a smaller gain in average happiness. One explanation for this is that people care not only about the capacity to consume but also about their position in society. For a review of the literature on relative standing and happiness see Frank and Heffetz (2011).

  14. 30 percent of respondents assessed their community standing to be on the bottom 5 rungs.

  15. Our measures of the variables home violence as a child, sexual assault, and community violence each combine two different subcategories of traumatic experiences. A table that presents the prevalence of trauma for each subcategory is available upon request. Inspection of this table reveals that females and males are twice as likely to report witnessing violence in the home than being beaten by their parents. In addition, both men and women are more likely to report being sexually assaulted (non-rape) than raped and being mugged than being beaten in the community. We estimated a version of Eq. (1) with Trauma measured as a vector of indicators for exposure to each of the aforementioned six subcategories and stalking. Online Appendix Table 3 presents the results for Models 2 and 4. These coefficient estimates are generally smaller in magnitude to the pooled results presented in Table 5. Moreover, the significance levels decline when we use the subcategory measures, which can be attributed to small cell size. It is noteworthy that our findings reveal the effects of the subcategories are nearly identical within each type of trauma. These findings affirm our approach of combining the subcategories when measuring the four different trauma types.

  16. For a discussion of these issues see Kendall-Tackett et al. (1993); Cahill et al. (1999); and Celano (1992).

  17. The negative association between stalking and happiness for males occurs when we estimate a model with our full set of controls. We do not find an association between community violence and happiness for females.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge the financial support provided by the Lenfest Summer Research Grant. Diette acknowledges support from the Lenfest Sabbatical Fellowship program. In addition, the authors thank Lauren Howard, Emma Busse, Shaun Devlin, and Taylor Melanson for their research support. Helpful comments were provided by the editor of this journal, two anonymous reviewers, and participants at the New Scholarship on Happiness Conference at the Duke University Law School.

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Correspondence to Arthur H. Goldsmith.

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Diette, T.M., Goldsmith, A.H., Hamilton, D. et al. Adult happiness and prior traumatic victimization in and out of the household. Rev Econ Household 16, 275–295 (2018).

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  • Happiness
  • Well-being
  • Child abuse
  • Trauma

JEL Classification

  • I31
  • J13
  • J18