How Happy? Well-Being Research and Online Data Repositories

Many surveys attempt to gauge the sense of well being in individuals and groups. There has been no way to empirically validate the accuracy of these self reported data. The recent paper “Objective Confirmation of Subjective Measures of Human Well-Being: Evidence from the U.S.A.” published January 29, 2010 in Science set out to compare self reported levels of happiness with objective measures thought to reflect levels of happiness on a state-by-state level across the U.S.A.

On a state-by-state basis, researchers compared answers to the question “In general, how satisfied are you with your life?” (1. Very satisfied, 2. Satisfied, 3. Dissatisfied, or 4. Very dissatisfied) with probable levels of well being estimated from economic measures.

The question is part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey sponsored by of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. With about 350,000 adults interviewed each year, the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System is the largest random-digit dialing telephone health survey in the world and it provides representative views into the self described health of people in the United States. These data are collected monthly and are available over the Internet.

The economic measures of well being were derived from compensating differentials. These measures are calculated from a number of location specific variables such as precipitation, temperature, commuting time, rates of violent crime, air quality, etc. A lot of the data used to calculate the economic measures of well being are collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and are published online in the “Statistical Abstract.” Some U.S. census data are available through the Semantic Web.

The research team found that, on a state-by-state basis, subjective reporting of happiness matched very well with the objective economic measures of well being. Their results provide an empirical bridge between psychology and economics and suggest that subjective measures of happiness may be used with confidence.