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SOEP People: Five Questions to Bruce Headey

Report of November 29, 2018

What makes people happy? Australian Political Scientist Bruce Headey was not only one of the first SOEP data users—he was one of the first researchers in the world to discover the value of the SOEP for research on happiness. Headey is a Principal Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research in the University of Melbourne. He is a specialist in welfare and distributional issues and at the forefront of current international research on the efficacy of social welfare policies in Western Europe and North America.

1. Happiness has been one focus of your research for several decades. Do your findings point to a kind of “recipe” for happiness?

One of the strange things in the West is the assumption that the same recipe for happiness would suit everybody. I don’t think that’s true. I think there are different approaches that work well for different people. People who are relatively altruistic and cooperative tend to be rather happy. Sometimes these are religious people. Other people’s happiness comes mainly through the family. What doesn’t work so well is a materialistic and careerist approach, which seems to lead to unhappiness even in those areas of life to which materialistic people give priority, such as their job and their income.

2. Your findings overturned the idea of a genetically determined “set point” for happiness across the life. That brought about a paradigm shift.

There was a period between 1985 and 2005 when Western life satisfaction researchers believed that most people had a “set point” of life satisfaction that depended on genetic personality traits. But with the panel data, it slowly became obvious that that paradigm for life satisfaction research was just wrong. There were loads of people in the SOEP—the first panel to provide this evidence—who had rather volatile patterns of life satisfaction. If you traced their life satisfaction from year to year on a graph, you could see that some people’s lives were a wild ride: They had ups and downs and periods when they were happy and periods of misery. So the set point theory was actually kicked out by the SOEP data, pure and simple.

That caused quite a stir in the scientific community ….
What always happens in all the sciences is that people fight like hell to retain the old paradigm and patch it up in weird ways. So there are still people around who say that in the long run, people may revert to a set point that might be predicted by their personality traits. But our research showed that, while personality is a stabilizing factor, happiness is also made up of a lot of choices. If you marry somebody who is more neurotic than yourself, you’re done. If you marry somebody who is rather nice and less neurotic than yourself, that permanently increases your well-being. Your work also makes a difference: People who work a lot more hours than they want to are a lot less happy than people who work about the hours they prefer. Of course, that’s not entirely your choice—it also depends on your employer.

3. Academics are relatively free to set their own working hours. Are they also more likely to end up being happy?

Academics have a wide choice of time uses and topics of research, and by and large we don’t have a boss bearing down on us all that fiercely. We also know that academics and vicars are the longest lived people on the planet—the shortest lived are doctors and dentists. The reason why people live longer if they are academics or vicars is probably connected to happiness. The occupations that people get into have an effect on longevity. People in more autonomous occupations tend to be happier…and happy people do live longer than others—that’s clear. We recently published a study on the relationship between happiness and longevity, using SOEP data, in Social Indicators Research “Happiness and Longevity: Unhappy People Die Young, Otherwise Happiness Probably Makes No Difference”.

4. If you look at the SOEP study today, what makes it unique?

It’s the only panel study in which you can observe all kinds of changes in people’s lives across three generations—there are now a number of grandparents in addition to parents and kids from the same families. As the time we observe people gets longer and longer, the more we will be able to address long-run questions about social and economic change. And in the end, I think that the idea of transgenerational structured inequality will turn out to be more untrue than true. I think ultimately SOEP will show that traditional sociology is just bilge.

5. What would you recommend to young people today who are starting a career in research?

If you’re a young researcher these days, you’re almost forced to design your research in terms of real experiments—randomized control trials—or natural experiments. And I think that the people who work on SOEP will want to combine SOEP data, maybe using it as a sort of background file, with other datasets that allow them to analyze it in an experimental or quasi-experimental way. My kids, who are young economists, can’t get stuff published in top journals unless it’s experimental or quasi-experimental. So something like the global financial crisis is a terrific opportunity: A whole lot of people take a wealth hit and you can see how they react in all kinds of ways—financially, in terms of life satisfaction, everything. But it’s getting harder and harder to publish if you’re just analyzing panel data in the way it’s collected.