Can We Use Dollars to Compare How Much Various Life Events Affect Well-being?

The life events I propose to discuss here are things like major improvements or worsening in financial situation, getting married or divorced, having a child, serious personal injury, death of a spouse, being made redundant and change of residence. I will focus on subjective well-being, as measured by surveys which ask people for a numerical rating of their satisfaction with life.

One way to compare the impact of life events on well-being is to calculate what change in income would have an equivalent impact after controlling for other factors. Some readers might recall research findings for the U.S. and Britain which suggested that the increased income equivalent of a lasting marriage is around $100,000 and an increase in income of around $60,000 would be required to compensate for the loss in well-being associated with becoming unemployed. (These numbers come from some pioneering research by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald published in 2000.)

There are several problems with the methodology of this early research which tend to overstate the income changes equivalent to life events. First, the methodology is based on estimates of the (small) impact that higher incomes have on current well-being without taking account of the impact of higher incomes on future well-being. Higher incomes enable the wealth accumulation (and the redistributions through tax and welfare systems) that make it possible for people to maintain their well-being during periods when earning potential is diminished (e.g. during retirement) or when they incur heavy costs or heavy costs are incurred on their behalf (e.g. education and medical expenses).

Second, the methodology focused on the impact of being in a particular state (e.g. married or unmarried) rather than on the duration or timing of the effects that life events have on well-being. Life events typically have large impacts on life satisfaction for only a relatively short period.

Third, the methodology was unable to distinguish causation. For example, it was unable to assess whether married people are happier than unmarried people because marriage tends to make people happy or because happy people are more likely to get married.

Research in this area has progressed a great deal in recent years, with the use of ongoing surveys that enable changes in the well-being of the same sample of people to be linked over time to life events. The HILDA survey (Australian data) shows that the events with the greatest positive effect on life satisfaction for both males and females included a major financial improvement in the past three months, having been married in the last three months and birth of a child (less than nine months ago). The events with greatest negative effect on life satisfaction included being detained in jail, a major financial worsening at any time in the last year, a recent separation from a spouse or partner and recent death of a relative or family member.

A recent paper by Paul Frijters, David Johnston and Michael Shields estimates the one-off windfall improvement in finances needed to compensate for various life events (‘Happiness dynamics with quarterly life event data’, DP 3604, IZA, July 2008). The windfall approach seems preferable because a comparison of the effects on current well-being of different life events avoids the conceptual and measurement problems of attempting to compare the effects of life events with the effects of differences in income levels.

The authors obtained the following estimates of compensating windfall financial gains for various life events:

Death of spouse/ child: + $178, 300
Serious personal injury or illness: + $ 59,200
Change of residence: – $ 53,000
Birth or adoption of child: – $ 18,300
Marriage – $ 16,500
Separation from spouse or partner: +$ 14,900
Fired or made redundant: + $ 6,900
Victim of property crime: +$ 2,700

(Currency: Australian dollars; $A1 = about $US 0.80. Assumed discount rate = 5% ) .

I should note that these compensating windfall estimates are additive. For example, a person who is fired might become separated from his or her spouse and experience a major financial worsening at the same time.

It seems to me that the magnitude of these estimated compensating windfalls generally make a lot more sense than do the much larger estimates of income-equivalents of life events. Nevertheless, I feel uneasy about the idea that the life satisfaction of people who suffer the death of a spouse or child would be unaffected, on average, if they received a windfall gain of around $A 178,300 at the same time. Can any amount of monetary compensation actually be sufficient to enable life satisfaction to remain unaffected while a person is mourning the loss of a loved one?

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