Unpacking the determinants of life satisfaction: a survey experiment

We present results of a survey experiment aimed at assessing context effects on reporting life satisfaction, exerted by raising awareness of fundamental life domains before eliciting overall life satisfaction, through questionnaire manipulations. Psychologists refer to similar context effects, generated by providing more details about the object of a subsequent evaluation, as ‘unpacking effects’. The longitudinal structure of our experimental design allows us to assess the effects of the questionnaire manipulation both between and within subject. In our sample of university students, asking subjects to report satisfaction with life domains before reporting overall satisfaction with life generates a robust unpacking effect, as it shifts upwards the subsequent mean overall life satisfaction evaluations. In addition, raising awareness about life domains significantly increases reliability and validity of self-reported life satisfaction, by reducing the dispersion of responses and increasing the association between life satisfaction and life domain evaluations. We also detect heterogeneous effects across subgroups of our sample—such as people with children or in bad health—and discuss implications of these findings for research on life satisfaction.

Netspar, Network for Studies on Pensions, Aging and Retirement, is a thinktank and knowledge network. Netspar is dedicated to promoting a wider understanding of the economic and social implications of pensions, aging and retirement in the Netherlands and Europe.

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