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SOEP People: Five Questions to Andrew Clark

Report of March 7, 2019

Andrew Clark is a CNRS Research Professor at the Paris School of Economics (PSE).  He previously held posts at Dartmouth, Essex, CEPREMAP, DELTA, the OECD and the University of Orléans. As a longtime SOEP data user, he was one of the first researchers worldwide to use SOEP data to study well-being in collaboration with psychologists.

Over the last three decades, Clark’s work has focused on the interface between psychology, sociology and economics; in particular, using job and life satisfaction scores. We talked to him about his research and about how his insights have reflected onto his life.

1. In 2003, together with Ed Diener, Richard Lucas, and Yannis Georgellis, you published a groundbreaking paper reexamining the theory that after initially reacting to major life and labor market events, people’s well-being gradually returns toward baseline levels. What did you find out?

Looking at these events based on SOEP data, we asked: Do you get used to everything? And we found out that you don’t. But different events have different effects. Some events have only ephemeral effects on well-being: divorce surprisingly has only a short-run effect—a very large effect, but not a permanent one.  Having children is the opposite: it’s very good for about 12 to 24 months, and then the effect goes away. Marriage as a legal status has very little effect on well-being: a small positive tick and then it goes down again. But some things continue to matter over time. Becoming unemployed is negative and remains just as negative in the third or fourth year of unemployment. Poverty is bad and stays bad. In fact, any sustained fall in income leads to a sustained fall in well-being. A positive event to which we do not adapt—and I had to change my thinking on this—is not marriage, but being in a relationship. So being with someone is always good. When you get married, there’s a little blip that then goes away, but you’ve still got the well-being premium from the relationship.

2. When you started working on well-being, it was a relatively unusual topic for an economist. How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

It’s been a series of chance meetings over the course of my life. When I was at school at about age 14, I was an absolutely appalling geography student, very poor, at the bottom of the class. We had a new teacher who made that subject come alive for me. The next year, I found out he was teaching A-level economics. And I said, if he could do such a good job getting me interested in rivers and lakes, he’s got to be a good teacher for economics, whatever that is. I ended up doing A-level economics and enjoying it, and since I could do maths it was natural choice to do undergraduate economics at university. The interest in comparisons and life satisfaction was a chance comment by Andrew Oswald, and the work on adaptation in well-being was the result of a chance meeting with Ed Diener in the lunch queue of a canteen. That’s just how life develops.

3. You’ve been studying well-being for more than 20 years. Have your findings and insights reflected back onto your life?

Earlier this year we finished work on a book called The Origins of Happiness that used different data sets including the SOEP to construct statistical models of well-being following people over time as they age and starting at a very young age. One of the general lessons we learned is that relationships are absolutely key. Relationships with others—family relationships, relationships with friends, relationships with society, and relationships at work—are difficult to measure but consistently came out as being at least as important as the objective variables we usually look at.

For me personally, one thing I have realized as I age is that at some point our children leave home, at some point we leave work, at some point we may separate. If we don’t invest in relationships throughout our lives, we may end up all on our own—just at the time we’re least able to cope with it. And one thing that has really struck me over the past year is that we can’t just leave everyone and concentrate on our work or on one thing. We need to take care of all those aspects of our life around us because we’re going to need them, and probably earlier than we think.

4. Do you see new perspectives opening up for the research on well-being?

The next big project is loneliness. We are all living longer. We are not necessarily retiring that much later, though it probably feels like it. We’re having smaller families. Our families are more dispersed. We are going to be faced with whole cohorts of older people living mostly on their own, who are not close to their children or family. This is going to have to be addressed. I’d really like to use the SOEP data to work on this—not just to look at objective social isolation but also at subjective well-being, at the feeling of loneliness: I just don’t have enough friends; I don’t have enough people with whom to interact. This is going to be terribly important, not just in terms of individual well-being but also in terms of health, the use of social services, morbidity, and mortality. I think of it as one of the great forthcoming challenges in social science.

5. You’ve been a social scientist for over 30 years. What advice would you give to young researchers?

Look around you and see what others are doing and working on. And then go and do something else. Because if if everybody is working on the same thing—like everyone is working on randomized control trials at the moment—there’s not much low-hanging fruit left. There’s not much left to say, and your chance of having an impact is elsewhere. It’s maybe a more risky choice, but the expected returns are larger.