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Relative standing and subjective well-being in South Africa: The role of perceptions, expectations and income mobility

Dorrit Posel and Daniela Casale
Publication date: 
March 2011
Most studies that explore the impact of relative standing on subjective well-being use objective measures of the individual’s relative position, such as the mean income of the reference group or the individual’s ranking in the relevant income distribution. In this paper, using a new household survey from South Africa, we are able to derive subjective measures of relative standing, as information is collected on individuals’ perceptions of where they rank in the income distribution. We find considerable differences between objective and subjective measures of an individual’s relative ranking. Furthermore, our results suggest that an individual’s perceived relative status has a significantly larger effect on subjective well-being than objective measures of relative status based on reported income. We also examine the effects on subjective well-being of how individuals perceive their relative position in the income distribution to have changed since childhood, and what they expect their relative position to be in the future. We find that future upward mobility has a smaller effect than upward mobility compared to one’s past, suggesting that life satisfaction is influenced more by what has been achieved than by anticipated achievements.
Publication PDF: 
Series title: 
Working Paper 210
Social Indicators Research 2011; 104(2): 195-223