What makes people more or less satisfied with their life in rural India? Princeton economist Dean Spears answers this question in a recent paper in the EPW. In a phone and email interview with Pragya Singh, Spears dwells on how wealth, education and, importantly, caste, makes individuals think differently about their life.
Why should an economist care about life satisfaction? Is life satisfaction what we call happiness?
Life satisfaction is how people evaluate their whole life. It's definitely not the same thing as happiness, which is one way you might feel at a time. How happy or sad somebody is, those are very useful things to know but they are substantially different from life satisfaction— being more about a person's emotions right now. Life satisfaction is important to measure because it's important that people have good lives!
The starting point for your paper was the SQUAT survey. What was that about?
We had done a previous study, the SQUAT (Sanitation Quality, Use, Access and Trends) study, which gave us data for 2013-14 from rural Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. That study is now in the public domain. So, yes, this paper is from the SQUAT data. We started SQUAT with the intention of getting-to-know-you type of study in rural north India, so we asked people questions about the work they do. We mostly let people answer questions about their life in their own way, and thought the results would be interesting.
What triggered your interest in life satisfaction?
Angus Deaton was my wife Diane's (Coffey) PhD advisor and he has worked on life satisfaction. We both felt it would be a good thing to examine in rural Uttar Pradesh. Ever since the SQUAT study, every few weeks, we would say to ourselves that we need to use its data for further research. Finally, when I was not doing anything else over one weekend, I decided to do a detailed analysis of that data with respect to life satisfaction.
Had SQUAT asked people direct questions on life satisfaction?
We had asked the people we interviewed to imagine a ladder with ten steps. The tenth step is the best level of life satisfaction and the first the least. Each person was asked what step they felt they are on. The nice thing about this is that the researcher asking the question doesn't have to have an opinion on how satisfying a person's life is —that is entirely the individual's view of his own subjective well-being.
The richer people get, the more satisfied they are with life — is that your paper's conclusion?
There is work that shows that as you get richer your happiness goes up too but we don't see the same result with life satisfaction. This could be because with life satisfaction you are reflecting upon life as a whole whereas a person can be sad at one particular moment and still have high overall life satisfaction.
Your paper examines connections between caste and life satisfaction. What is this link?
The study has two parts. First we look at all caste categories across the board — forward castes, Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes (OBC), in a rural setting in Uttar Pradesh. Statistically, we found that when we ask all of them the same questions we still get different answers. The very first finding, then, is that you experience life as worse when you are a Dalit than any other caste. One might worry seeing that the difference in life satisfaction is just because of money — that relative wealth is causing a difference in reported life satisfaction. Therefore, in the second step, we compared people who have the same educational qualifications and own similar numbers of assets. We found, on average, life satisfaction is not the same across castes for people living under the same conditions.
Many Indians feel caste discrimination is well behind us…
I wish I could say that but can't, having lived and worked in rural Uttar Pradesh.
How could you conclude that caste is the key factor? Is it possible that other, perhaps subjective, factors intervened?
I'm not saying caste is the only thing that matters. The paper even shows that wealth and education do too. A study like this works on averages so we can say that life satisfaction is linked with caste, relative ownership of assets and levels of education. That said there are all sorts of studies and audits being conducted in India that examine the role of caste. For instance, a study shows that when people of different castes send resumes for jobs, upper caste candidates with same or higher qualifications are more likely to be called for interviews.
How can studies on life satisfaction add to what we already know about caste?
We know that caste is prevalent in India but importantly we still don't know how people whose life is affected by this feel. Worldwide, there is increasing talk about including life satisfaction among other measures of economic well-being, but it is not common as yet, and it is certainly not routinely collected.
Your study seems to show that SCs or OBCs never report the higher life satisfaction levels that forward castes report. Is this correct?
All of these numbers are averages, so there are certainly some Dalits who have higher life satisfaction than some members of forward castes. This happens at a high enough wealth level. But there aren't a lot of people there, so it is a bit of a statistical fluke.
Therefore, wealth can melt the caste barrier?
Of course, the richer and better educated have more opportunities and resources and they would have more life satisfaction. Also what we see is that if you are from the higher caste then money takes you to a certain level of life satisfaction and after that it levels out.
So money can't buy happiness but it can buy some life satisfaction?
Although this used to be debated earlier, now there is more of a consensus in the literature that richer people have more life satisfaction, on average. We know this especially from the work of Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson (economists at University of Michigan). In a paper by Angus Deaton (Nobel laureate economist) and Daniel Kahneman (behavioral economist), they show how, apparently, when you get rich enough your life satisfaction levels off and more money does not increase it any further.
How can Indians get greater life satisfaction?
Alas, that question is a much bigger one than I can answer — India has been struggling with the annihilation of caste since at least its constitution.
What other work can life satisfaction studies be put to?
A great next step would be for it to be included in some of the big national surveys like the NFHS (national family health survey), DLHS (district level household survey), IHDS (India human development study), and NSS (national sample survey). Life satisfaction certainly isn't the only measure of well-being that we should use for evaluating programs and policies but I think there is increasing recognition that it is one thing we should be thinking about among others.
How have other academics responded to your study?
There was one recurring question, which related to how different people might have different expectations, and so report their life satisfaction as being very low or high. That is one type of situation I would be very interested to know more about.
Dean Spears is currently visiting economist at Indian Statistical Institute and also director, Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE)