Compared to whom? Inequality, social comparison, and happiness in the United States

Arthur S. Alderson, Tally Katz-Gerro

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We contribute to the literature on positional goods and subjective well-being by providing new evidence on the following questions: Is the effect of income on subjective well-being mainly relative or absolute? Does the intensity of social comparison condition the effect of income on well-being? Does the reference group for comparison condition this effect? We present results from the Social Status, Consumption, and Happiness Survey, a national survey of Americans conducted in 2012. The findings suggest that the more highly individuals rate their income relative to others, the happier they are; that individuals who find it important to compare their income to that of others are less happy; and that the reference group that is salient for comparison conditions the association between income and well-being. We situate these findings in the literatures on the dynamics of inequality, social comparison, and well-being.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-54
Number of pages30
JournalSocial Forces
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2016

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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