Well-Being Inequality and Reference Groups – An Agenda for New Research

September 28, 2010

By: Bernard van Praag (University of Amsterdam)


In this paper it is argued that subjective well-being of the individual depends on two types of variables. The first type consists of characteristics of the individual himself, such as age, health, income, etc. The second type of variables consists of the characteristics of the individuals belonging to his reference group. The vast literature about happiness, quality of life, and well-being informs us extensively about the effects of objective variables. How the second type affects well-being is much less investigated. It is argued that the concept of well-being inequality cannot be properly defined without taking the referencing process into account. The reference effect depends on how frequently individuals compare with others and on the degree of social transparency in society. We attempt to give a structural embedding of the idea of reference groups in SWB-models. In this paper we employ the reference-extended model for incorporating in happiness studies the concept of inequality in happiness or SWB. Finally, we plead for an extension of the present happiness paradigm by setting up a new additional agenda for empirical research in order to get quantified knowledge about the referencing process. As a first step we suggest a new question module to be included in new survey questionnaires.

Accepted for publication in Journal of Economic Inequality.
Keywords: subjective well-being; happiness; inequality; reference group
JEL: D31

The NEP-LTV Blog

September 27, 2010

This blog is an experiment to explore the feasibility of scientific discussion on an Economics blog. NEP-LTV disseminates every week new working papers in the field of Unemployment, Inequality & Poverty. Among them, the NEP-LTV editor selects one to be discussed. Everyone is invited to comment. Try to stay civil, or your comments will be removed. And encourage others to read or join in the discussion.