Deconstructing the hedonic treadmill

Nicolas L. Bottan, IDB & Universidad de San Andrés
Ricardo N. Pérez Truglia, Harvard University

Affective habituation is well-documented in social sciences: people seem to adapt to many life events, ranging from lottery windfalls to terminal illnesses. We propose a subtle but critical difference: current happiness may depend directly on past happiness. We test our hypothesis running dynamic happiness regressions using panel data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, the British Household Panel Survey and the Swiss Household Panel. Contrary to the widespread prior among economists and non-economists, the coefficient on lagged happiness is positive and statistically significant. We discuss some explanations for the puzzle. Our favorite is that reported happiness is time-inconsistent, even within individuals. We test this conjecture by using a 52-days study. As expected, the coefficient on lagged happiness is negative and statistically significant. We find that changes in hedonic states bounce back 30% in only 5 days.

Presented in Session 25: Happiness, emotional status and life satisfaction