Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Sensitivity of Wellbeing to Inequalities in Local Wellbeing

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Version 2 2023-09-26, 23:57
Version 1 2021-12-07, 07:09
posted on 2023-09-26, 23:57 authored by Dickinson, Pascarn Ronald

Research points to a robust negative relationship between average levels of subjective wellbeing and the distribution of subjective wellbeing. The fact that our wellbeing falls as wellbeing distributions widen suggests we care about inequalities in the lives of others. Central to this relationship is the role of place and human geography. The literature relating wellbeing to inequality in wellbeing is confined almost exclusively to inter-country comparisons. Virtually no attention has been paid to the relationship between wellbeing and inequality within countries - at the level of regions and below. The aim of this thesis is to test the generality of the inter-country evidence in the sub-national context.  I present four hypotheses which I test on three separate cross-sectional surveys: the New Zealand Quality of Life Survey, The New Zealand General Social Survey and the survey of Māori wellbeing, Te Kupenga. I follow the literature in using the standard deviation of wellbeing as a measure of wellbeing inequality. In each case the negative relationship between individual wellbeing and wellbeing inequality is clearly identifiable. The wellbeing effect of living in a place one standard deviation higher than another is roughly equivalent to the difference between the wellbeing of someone who is fully employed and someone who is unemployed and looking for work. Clearly we are highly sensitive to disparities in the subjective wellbeing of those around us.  I conduct several tests of the psychological drivers that lie behind the wellbeing response to local inequality in wellbeing. The first tests fairness perceptions, and finds sensitivity to wellbeing inequality to be higher among those who do not believe society is intrinsically fair. My test of altruism, while not as convincing empirically, suggests altruistic people may also be less affected by local wellbeing inequality. Both conclusions are consistent with the implied causation running from inequality to wellbeing.  While an important addition to the wellbeing literature, the more important implication of my findings is political. As the New Zealand Local Government Act comes up for renewal, the evidence I have assembled strongly supports providing local government with a clear purpose and the necessary funding to address the underlying causes of local inequalities in wellbeing. On empirical grounds alone, reducing wellbeing inequality is likely to make us all much happier.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline

Human Geography

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Morrison, Philip