Analysis of change in ranks in a national population

J.J. Ehrhardt, W.E. Saris & R. Veenhoven
Journal of Happiness Studies, 2000, vol. 1, pp.177-205

This paper is about constancy of differences in life-satisfaction in society. It analyzes data of a large panel study in Germany, which involved yearly interviews between 1984 and 1994. Year-to-year correlation started at +.45 and increased gradually to +.54. The correlation between the first and later reports declined through the years, the correlation between the 1st and the 11th report was only +.29.

Observed overtime correlation may result from six effects: Firstly the correlation is attenuated by error: 1) common measurement error, such as haphazard responding, and 2) error in estimating general satisfaction due to passing uplifts and hassles. Both errors may shrink as 3) respondents get experienced in answering questions about life-satisfaction and 4) when they mature. Next, 'true' correlation will depend on: 5) mayor changes in life, such as loss of job or getting married, and 6) stable stocks, such as personal capabilities and social relations. This paper develops models to disentangle these effects.

The best fitting model suggests that almost half of the initial variance in life-satisfaction was due to error: 23% to error in responding (effect 1) and 19% to error in estimating one's satisfaction with life (effect 2). In 10 years the error component shrinks by 10%, largely due to learning 9effect 3) and partly due to aging (effect 4). In the end, life-changes explained 30% of the variance (effect 5) and stable stocks another 29%. (effect 6).

These results mark a considerable mobility along the life-satisfaction ladder in a modern society: over a lifetime less than 30% of the original rank order in life-satisfaction will be left. That outcome is at odds with common theories of class and personality.

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