Working Papers

2008-19 | August 2008

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Happiness, Unhappiness, and Suicide: An Empirical Assessment

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The use of subjective well-being (SWB) data for investigating the nature of individual preferences has increased tremendously in recent years. There has been much debate about the cross-sectional and time series patterns found in these data, particularly with respect to the relationship between SWB and relative status. Part of this debate concerns how well SWB data measures true utility or preferences. In a recent paper, Daly, Wilson, and Johnson (2007) propose using data on suicide as a revealed preference (outcome-based) measure of well-being and find strong evidence that reference-group income negatively affects suicide risk. In this paper, we compare and contrast the empirical patterns of SWB and suicide data. We find that the two have very little in common in aggregate data (time series and cross-sectional), but have a strikingly strong relationship in terms of their determinants in individual-level, multivariate regressions. This latter result cross-validates suicide and SWB micro data as useful and complementary indicators of latent utility.

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