Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-Being: Evidence from the U.S.A.

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Science  17 Dec 2009:
DOI: 10.1126/science.1180606


A huge research literature, across the behavioral and social sciences, uses information on individuals’ subjective well-being. These are responses to questions—asked by survey interviewers or medical personnel—such as “how happy do you feel on a scale from 1 to 4?” Yet there is little scientific evidence that such data are meaningful. This study examines a 2005–2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System random sample of 1.3 million United States citizens. Life-satisfaction in each U.S. state is measured. Across America, people’s answers trace out the same pattern of quality of life as previously estimated, using solely nonsubjective data, in a literature from economics (so-called ”compensating differentials” neoclassical theory due originally to Adam Smith). There is a state-by-state match (r = 0.6, P < 0.001) between subjective and objective well-being. This result has some potential to help to unify disciplines.