Income comparison and happiness: The role of fair income distribution

Yongwei Chen, Dahai Fu, Xinyue Ye

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Relative income gap is one of the most popular approaches for explaining the income–happiness relationship. We argue in this article that when people compare their incomes, they care about distributional fairness more than relative income disparity. It is difficult for us to explain China's income–happiness paradox if we simply compare the income gap and do not explore the income-generation process leading to income inequality. We therefore employ an approach based on a responsibility-sensitive theory of justice that decomposes individual income into fair and unfair components. As a proxy for distributional unfairness, unfair income is considered the main source of unhappiness. Using data from the Chinese Household Income Project survey, we find strong support for the negative relationship between income unfairness and happiness. We also find a significantly positive relationship between the relative income gap and income unfairness, which leads us to consider the income comparison hypothesis as the explanation for the income–happiness paradox in a new light. Sensitivity analyses confirm the robustness of our results.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)41-63
Number of pages23
JournalAustralian Economic Papers
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance


  • JEL codes I31, D31, D63, J31
  • fairness
  • happiness
  • inequality
  • relative income
  • well-being


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