Virtual Life Satisfaction

Kykl With life satisfaction expert Gert G. Wagner of Berlin I've co-authored a study that's just come out in the economics journal Kyklos (Edit: Free version). We find that people have higher life satisfaction in Second Life than in real life. That's not such a big deal by itself, but the effect size is large and leads to some startling comparisons. Such as: For an unemployed person, the happiness boost for going to Second Life is bigger than that for getting a job. An East German gets more of a life satisfaction increase by being in Second Life than by moving to West Germany. Generally, Second Life provides as large a happiness boost as a number of major life changes. Choosing Second Life is a lot easier to do as well. The data thus suggest that choosing Second Life over major life change would be "rational" because VR provides more of a happiness boost at less cost.

These are all regression results with other relevant factors such as age, sex, and income accounted for. We are not finding any causal effects here, just correlations. What's noteworthy is the magnitude of the correlations. Second Life is providing a big chunk of life satisfaction, just as big as the factors that previous researchers on life satisfaction have found were the "biggies," like health, employment, and family relationships. (By the way, in case you didn't know, money does not make you happy.)

This evidence is consistent with the concept of a "toxic immersion dilemma" that I brought up in my first book. When someone freely chooses VR but then is leading a "bad" life (according to our standards), what do we do?

Comments on Virtual Life Satisfaction:

John McKnight says:

The "toxic immersion dilemma" concept strikes me as odd. Surely the proper frame of reference is a person's life as a whole.

Would there be a similar framing for someone who had a crap job, but derived sufficient-to-them overall satisfaction from a rewarding family life, or someone with a lousy marriage, but great job satisfaction?

Nobody has it all: a good life is stitched together from disparate pieces. Adding a very satisfying piece to compensate for less satisfying ones isn't a problem, it's a solution.

Posted Sep 1, 2011 11:19:15 AM | link

Stabs says:

"When someone freely chooses VR but then is leading a "bad" life (according to our standards), what do we do?"

Are you asking this question in a quasi-medical way (eg how can we "fix" someone who is "addicted"?) or a utilitarian way (eg how can people who play WoW all day be converted into more productive citizens?)

Posted Sep 1, 2011 12:23:54 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Personally, it's not a utilitarian issue for me. For me, the problem
is not that they aren't working or whatever. It sure will be for
others, though. Utilitarian arguments are the kind of reasoning that
democracies use to abolish freedoms, such as the freedom to consume
a product even if it hurts you. The basis for going after smokers
has been second-hand smoke effects. Perhaps the basis for yanking
people out of VR will be that the rest of us need their labor hours.

I don't like the term quasi-medical, but of the two, that's closer
to the dilemma as I see it. A lot of people would agree that living
a life in VR is just not a good life. OK, so what do you mean by
"good" life? Debate, debate, debate. Result: No unanimous agreement,
but rather a general, and disputed, view that being stuck in a pod
and never touching anybody else is not the way a human being should
live. OK, fine. The world argues and argues about it. So then we
have someone whose loved one (son, husband, mother) has chosen to
jack in and stay in. The person is older than 18. Maybe he even
signed a document saying "I want this, don't pull me out." The
relatives go to court - "let us save him," they plead. Maybe the
court says, "show us evidence of harm." Evidence of harm to others?
See utilitarian case. WHat about harm to self? Bed sores? OK, that
would probably be persuasive. Obesity? General health indicators?
Maybe not. What about mental damage? "He's getting depressed in
there, you see."

Posted Sep 1, 2011 12:37:57 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

John got to it before I did... but, yeah. Just because we use the word "life" in "Second Life" and talk about it in terms of being "a virtual world" and "an alternate personality," it's not distinct/separate from Life 1.0.

Anything in excess can be a problem; TV, sugar, exercise, sex, books, cats, radiation, unicorns, etc. Your virtual life isn't any more a distinct, separate life from your actual life than your "television watching life" is from your "playing backgammon life" or your "sleeping in on Saturdays life."

I refuse to entertain any ideas of limiting or analyzing as problematic any video game and/or virtual reality behavior until we establish a baseline using football hooliganism as the control.

Posted Sep 1, 2011 1:24:06 PM | link

Andy Havens says:

Oh... I'd also be interested in *why* people got that boost of happiness in SL. Social relationships? Sense of control? The ability to set/meet small-scale goals? Game-y type rewards?

Posted Sep 1, 2011 1:25:51 PM | link

Stabs says:

Should any regulation be solely aimed at video games or would it also be extended to other dangerous hobbies such as extreme sports, alcohol consumption and gun ownership?

I certainly accept that playing too much can be damaging (deep vein thrombosis and so on) but I'm wary of handing over decision-making on such issues to an authority. Who would constitute such an organisation that would oversee gaming? Looking at regulation in other industries to we really want gaming regulated the way, say, banks are?

Is there an educational solution? Letting people make informed decisions seems a better option.

What about people whose lives really are so terrible that we would be doing them no favours to bring them out of their virtual world?

Posted Sep 1, 2011 4:46:02 PM | link

Diane says:

I'm also curious, do other virtual words also provide similar benefits? My hunch would be any place that encourages "meaningful"(*) social interactions should provide benefits.

It might be interesting to compare levels of engagement in virtual worlds versus engagement in physical world communities. e.g. Are people happier in a raiding guild, a community of practice, or an active church?

(*) Though I then wonder what makes a meaningful social interaction, and my best guess there is interactions that create trust.

Posted Sep 1, 2011 5:36:59 PM | link

John McKnight says:

Diane and Andy, well said! Maybe the full article (which I've just pulled from my uni library connection) makes a case for why SL/virtual worlds/games are different in kind from other forms of social activity, such that they're treated as (at least potentially) pathological per se - but I suspect not.

Now, being active in a church group would make for an interesting comparison, wouldn't it?

BTW, Diane - I clicked through to your LJ, and an old post of yours on EVE Online just answered a question my dissertation committee asked. I owe you lunch :)

Posted Sep 1, 2011 7:37:57 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Right John - we didn't have data on other environments. It would be
interesting to do a follow-up study of life satisfaction in multiple
social media. For this paper, we only have Second Life. Might be a
good dissertation topic.

Posted Sep 1, 2011 7:43:02 PM | link

Darryl says:

Is there some kind of selection bias at play here? The people in your SL sample have already chosen to participate in SL, and presumably by doing so 'know' that they gain some benefit from being there -- that person may have some kind of predisposition that makes them well suited to virtual communication / companionship.

Can we necessarily say then that a random unemployed person on the street would have the same significant benefits from entering SL?

Posted Sep 2, 2011 3:21:13 AM | link

Rob Gould says:

Fascinating. I would love to read the whole article but my initial reaction is that I'm not surprised because people do tend to make rational decisions and those who are active in Second Life will be so for the reason that they experience a gain from it that outweighs other uses of their time. I echo John's comment that a "happy life" is a patchwork of many different domains and increasingly virtual ones are playing an important part in the lives of many. The comparison with deep involvement in any community, real or virtual would I think find few differences.

"For an unemployed person, the happiness boost for going to Second Life is bigger than that for getting a job."

I think it would surely depend on the person and the job. I'd love to know about the selection criteria and methodology here.

If any of us finds a community where we can achieve something and have that achievement recognised by our peers its a powerful draw, wherever and whatever it is.

Posted Sep 2, 2011 4:18:26 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

@ Darryl - yes, you are understanding it correctly. Our sample is
just people in SL. So the finding that people in SL enjoy SL is not
interesting. It's like saying "Our sample of people watching TV
revealed that they like TV." In my description, you'll note that I
said "this is not a big deal." The deal (big or not) is in the size
of the effect. I would have expected that, as much as SL'ers enjoy
SL, it would not compare to the feeling of an unemployed person who
finally lands a job. But it does. It's the same size effect.

It's sort of like this. Instead of just finding that "people who
watch TV like TV," we are finding "people who watch TV like TV
better than sex." It's the "better than sex" part that strikes me as
interesting. For our study, replace TV with SL and replace sex with
stuff like getting a job, improving your health, and living in a
nice country. It's surprising to me that SL has such a big effect on
life satisfaction.

Posted Sep 2, 2011 8:50:42 AM | link

Gina Cirelli says:

I believe that this is the result of our society's loss of spirituality. Despair happens when one does not trust/believe in a higher power. And when one is despaired, one seeks to replace the despair and numbness with all sorts of things.

Yes, I am of course simplifying, but think about it. Most computer geeks I know do not believe in God or any other deity. It's cool to be an atheist, and unfortunately that is the norm these days.

Posted Sep 2, 2011 12:13:22 PM | link

Stabs says:

I've been fascinated this morning to read about the latest Goon adventure in Eve Online.

It seems some of them were perfectly happy to get real world jobs and move country as part of playing the game. Senior officers in the Goon guild Stoffer (now CCP Soundwave) and Darius Johnson (now CCP Sreegs) actually went to work for CCP and have put through changes to the game orchestrated by Goon mastermind The Mittani to advantage their alliance.

I wrote about it here:

Posted Sep 4, 2011 2:57:11 AM | link

Alex says:

Wow that's a very eye opening study. I've heard similar studies were done on other MMO games such as WoW and EVE online. Also such as another comment suggested I'm curious to find out what caused the most satisfaction, probably the social relationships.

Posted Sep 4, 2011 12:23:08 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Other studies have shown that the most powerful predictors of life
satisfaction are relationships, health, and life-meaning, usually
indicated by meaningful vocation. For some, the vocation is a job,
for others, it is a volunteer or uncompensated calling (such as
motherhood). The research indicates a fairly clear road to happiness
(as measured by life satisfaction):

- Spend most of your energy on relationships skills.
- Keep close with family.
- Keep a few friends and stay close to them.
- Pay attention to your health.
- Seek positions that make personally meaningful use of your talents
(not money).

Some corollaries include, don't move away from family for a job. In
fact, don't move, period. Don't be promiscuous. Don't undertake
health-endangering risks (such as drugs or sports where neck bones
can get broken). Get married, have kids, don't divorce. Don't sell
your soul to The Man. Be loyal. Be truthful. Have limits and enforce
them. Don't trade sociability for "lifestyle" statements. Do what
you love. Associate with people and organizations that constantly
affirm your personal meaning and worth. Don't grind; do quests.

Basically, all these things are associated with long-run
relationships, physical and emotional health, and meaningful life
activity. It's not some kooky philosophy, it's the result of about
15 years' worth of research into the concrete determinants of
happiness. I know I keep pushing some buttons around here in terms
of stressing the religious and relational as opposed to the
capitalist or structural as far as media motivations go, but this
research has persuaded me that the former are legitimate causal
forces, the latter mere amplifiers. 

For further reading, I recommend Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis.

As for the uses and abuses of happiness by the state, see this
symposium on happiness and economic policy:

Posted Sep 4, 2011 2:10:21 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

If, in our lives, we do all we can to approximate what is expected of us by our culture and do so with relative ease, then there is probably a good chance we will be happy: who could criticize us church-going sociable folk?

If there's any objection to the research on happiness, it must be on the grounds that a 'happy' life and a 'good' life are conflated. The former seems a bit flighty; perhaps 'blissfulness' is a better word. The latter is a definite philosophical concept, still argued today, and with roots in Aristotle and Confucius.

So fine: conforming to (or perhaps the innate ability to conform to) expectations of my society makes me blissful. But that is all it does.

Also, I don't know if money has nothing to do with it: Economists that do subject well-being studies seem to think absolute and relative wealth both matter. The debate is over degree of importance.

Posted Sep 5, 2011 9:25:51 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Isaac, the life satisfaction measure has been established as a
surprisingly robust measure of subjective well-being. If we go
beyond such subjective measures, we get into the dilemma I was
referring to earlier. You and I might agree that a life that leads
to subjective well-being in today's society is a crappy life by some
other standard. The problem is, at what point (if any) is the
difference in standards actionable? The things a dedicated Marxist
believes leads to a good life (as opposed to a self-satisfied, happy
life) are quite different from the things a devout Roman Catholic
believes lead there. Does one or the other have the grounds for
public policy action to impose their standard of good life on
someone who is simply happy? The libertarians have us both cold at
that point. You and I may judge things one way or the other, but the
libertarian says we have no right to do anything about those
judgments. I may urge still more conformity to traditional
standards, and you may urge more resistance to them. But we both
kind of have to hold our tongues, out of respect for the autonomy of

Now, on an empirical point, you seem to assume that society's norms
are generally in favor of stable, robust families and regular
religious attendance. I disagree. The two-parent family is now a
minority family form in Europe and the US. Fertility rates in most
of western Europe are well below replacement. 'Family' is simply
vanishing as a life goal. As for religion, religious attendance has
been the practice of a vanishingly small (and aged) minority in most
of Europe for decades. Religion is more popular in the US than in
Europe, but even in the US, it is treated by media and cultural
leaders as a fringe practice indulged in only by the addle-brained
unwashed. This has a specific historic cause and a specific historic
culprit: The Academy. For decades, the Academy in particular has
exerted ongoing pressure on students of family and faith to turn
their back on these traditions. Buckley's God and Man at Yale
describes the turning point. As a result, religious and
family-support movements in this country and abroad are largely run
by people who have reflexively turned their own back on
universities. Meanwhile, the people who dominate 'normal' culture
are by no means in favor of returning to pre-1950 traditional
attitudes. Society's norms instead tell us it is largely OK and
understandable to marry and unmarry at will, to have kids here and
there and see them now and then, and to sit in your room thinking
about the Spirit every once in awhile. Those are the norms as I see
them. Just ask a bunch of teachers (Elementary, College, whatever)
what they think.

By the way, all of these family and religious conditions apply only
to 20th-centruy indigenous populations in Europe and the US.
Immigrants since 1950 to these places, from alleged 'backward' parts
of the world, continue in traditional fertility patterns and
religious observance. They are growing in size and cultural
prominence. If current trends do not change, the ostensibly
'advanced' cultures in these will simply die off, and be replaced by
the 'backward' people, the people who were so foolish as not to
decide that family and religion don't matter. Thus it is largely
irrelevant whether we philosophically prefer, or oppose, cultures
based on families and religions. In 200 years, they will once again
dominate human culture, as they always have.

This demographic trend, by the way, does not even take into account
the effects of VR. As I wrote in "Fertility and Virtual Reality"
(Washington and Lee Law Review), the additional negative effect of
VR on fertility - if you're in a pod, you ain't having babies - adds
an even more powerful acid to this demographic corrosion.

Our challenges are great. How do we build a culture that keeps
people happy, that helps them lead a philosophically good life,
*and* that allows them to properly and healthily integrate the
incredibly powerful representational media technologies coming our

Posted Sep 5, 2011 11:07:13 AM | link

Isaac Knowles says:


I wasn't questioning the data or their correlations. I was just making a distinction between being 'happy', or having high 'well-being', and having a good life. I think they're different concepts.

I don't think I'm making any assumption about society's norms; I'm talking about society's ideals. The majority in Western Europe may be old, divorced, and/or irreligious. That doesn't mean that the young, married believer in not held in high esteem. Think of it this way: most people want stable homes, they want to believe there is a higher power, they want children, a single-family house, a meaningful, satsfying job that pays well. They want to be well-liked. Why, then, should we be surprised when people who have those things are happy?

The academy is a very small minority. I and < 30% of my fellow Gen X/Yers hold 4 year degrees. Of those, let's say 25% get degrees in departments that would even begin to discuss the role of marriage in society. Of those, lets' say one-half think marriage and religion are bad. Then we have .3*.25*.5 = 3.75% of people aged 18-24 have been 'brainwashed' by the intelligentsia to think that marriage and religion are bad. So, incisive though Buckley always was, I don't buy the 'academy argument' for the disintegration of the family or the diminishing importance of religion.

What I think we observe as volatility or trends in membership in these institutions are better accounted for by the fact that we no longer legislate that people have no choice in the matter, and we don't stigmatize (as much) people in transition. If you're married, you can get divorced. If you're divorced or widowed, you can get remarried. If you're gay, you can find another gay person. If you don't want to be pregnant, abort. If you don't like DC, move to Albuquerque or Beijing. If you cease to belive in the Christian God, there is always Buddha or Allah or Yoga or 'feeling spiritual'. The point is that people are able to correct their decisions in the pursuit of the ideal, and to better absorb shocks to that pursuit. Neither of us has any reason to think that immigrants to the West will not also grasp that they are free to make those choices, or to choose again if they didn't like the first draw. That might make them less happy, but that doesn't make the ideal any less important.

Maybe 'happier-ness' in Second Life is related to the fact that mistakes are so easily corrected there; that, if I did really screw-up, I can always rebrand myself by starting again. Or perhaps people in Second Life are more forgiving of my quirks, or of the circumstances in my first life. If my virtual second life is a reboot, then perhaps its easier to reach my ideal there than it is to reach it here. In any event, fewer people in transition to happiness makes happiness more common makes average happiness higher.

Posted Sep 5, 2011 12:36:53 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

I like it - SL as the ultimate restart engine. 


Posted Sep 5, 2011 1:58:05 PM | link

Isaac Knowles says:

On a completely other line of inquiry, I got into a discussion with someone today about your findings that people were, on average, roughly 4/10 of a point happier in SL than in RL. My knowledge on methodology of subjective well-being is pretty close to nil. Do you have a sense of how significant a change of 0.4 actually is? It seems like calculating margins for a subjective well-being scales would be a tricky task. I know you talk about it being like taking a new job or changing to a healthier lifestyle. I guess I'm wondering if taking a new job means getting better pay or if it just means changing the company you work for. Similarly, whether the comparable lifestyle change means I'm just parking further away from the Baskin Robbins, or getting a health club membership, personal trainer, and dietitian.

Posted Sep 5, 2011 9:16:35 PM | link

Thaiis Thei says:

I think its about self determination. In SL we are much more free and self determined that we are in meatspace, this is especially true for those in low level jobs. SL is the world of our ultimate creation, as we don't just create ourselves, we also create the world. We can have whatever political system, or lack thereof, that we like. We can dress, act, interact, and make and remake ourselves as we like. Most importantly we can agree amongst ourselves how we will be and live and our wishes actually come to be. Contrast this with the powerlessness many feel in regards to participation in shaping meatspace...

Posted Sep 5, 2011 11:44:47 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

You'd have to go through the literature but it's things like, the
JOBSTATUS = UNEMPLOYED regression coefficient is similar size to the
SL effect. It doesn't get much more granular than that. Or going
from HEALTHSTATUS = POOR to HEALTHSTATUS = GOOD. These variables are
the standard variables that people in econ, soc, etc., use when
regression, let's say, wages on education and sex to determine
whether there's a gender effect on earnings. They're standard
variables, rather rough, but they do pick up an effect on life

As for whether the effects are big, look at this:

Mean life satisfaction is kind of like Gini coefficients in that it
doesn't move much.

Posted Sep 6, 2011 7:55:17 AM | link

Dean says:

I found the idea of a virtual experience comparable to being unemployed quite interesting. It reminded me of players in a raiding guild who where not stable members of the 25-man team and had been demoted to 'social' status for one reason or another. Sure they where called in during times of desperation, but their peripheral status and poor access to loot must of made them feel undervalued. However, as not all players like to raid, I imagine it would be difficult to measure this concept in WoW, let alone SL

Posted Sep 6, 2011 12:48:04 PM | link

Edward Castronova says:

Here's a study that just popped into my Inbox: Having Dad around predicts kids' IQ.

Posted Sep 7, 2011 1:06:16 PM | link

SusanC says:

At one level, this finding is - as you say - unsurprising:

People who play SL mostly do it because they enjoy it more than the available alternatives (the alternatives available are, of course, subject to constraints of money, etc.)

Still, I'm really surprised they enjoy it *that* much.

(Personally, I find SL interesting as a subject for research, but I'm pretty ambivalent about it as game or social space).

My own guess as to the appeal of SL was that users are very deprived of real-world social interaction and/or success, and so find any kind of social contact - even the limited kind you get in SL - attractive.

Posted Sep 12, 2011 9:56:54 AM | link

Edward Castronova says:

That interpretation makes a lot of sense to me.

Posted Sep 12, 2011 10:08:13 AM | link

Andy Havens says:

I had read recently that there are two kinds of happiness: daily, and overall.

Overall tracks to things that Ed mentions; big life stuff, staying married, etc. Also, it does track to income... but only up to around $70,000/year. After that, mo' money is just as likely to make you unhappy as happy.

Daily happiness tracks almost universally to two things: 1) did I sleep well last night, and; 2) did I cross something off my list of to-do's yesterday. Not "did I work hard," but "did I accomplish something."

Get some sleep, check shit off your list. Sounds like a good day to me.

Posted Sep 13, 2011 11:40:21 AM | link