Happiness Studies and the Problem of Interpersonal Comparisons of Satisfaction: Two Histories, Three Approaches

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An old methodological obstacle confronts the use of Life Satisfaction surveys in Happiness Studies: a problem that economists recognize by the name of (the impossibility of) interpersonal comparisons of satisfaction/utility. But the recent implementation of insights from happiness studies into policy making transforms an originally theoretical obstacle into a real-world problematic, providing substantial motivation for engaging with this issue. Just this problem is highlighted by recent critics of happiness surveys. This paper locates the problem currently facing happiness studies at the intersection of two traditions or two histories: that of economic methodology and that of psychological methodology. Three dominant approaches to the issue revealed through these histories are identified: ‘the skeptical approach’, ‘the pragmatic approach’, and ‘the ethical-normative approach’. The paper works to bring together the two disciplinary histories and evaluate the three approaches in order to frame a suitable interpretation of inter-personal comparisons in happiness studies. The implications of this are twofold: it contributes to the legitimation of happiness studies, suggesting an answer to its critics, while, at the same time casting the status of its building blocks under a different light.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)423-442
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Happiness Studies
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2018


  • Economics
  • Happiness
  • Interpersonal comparisons
  • Life satisfaction
  • Methodology
  • Psychology
  • Utility

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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