Ori Heffetz, an economist and visiting research scholar at the Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW), is driven by the pursuit of happiness, personally and professionally. Like many of his peers, he began his academic journey in search of “the good life” and all it entails. He’s still looking. After graduating college with more questions than answers, the Israeli native launched a career in higher education and continued his quest to understand the multi-faceted dimensions of human welfare.
In this Spotlight, Heffetz, a professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and associate professor at Cornell University, discusses the relationship between individual and national wellbeing. The crux of his research explores how people make choices – valuable information for studying economic behavior and constructing indicators that could help nations build stronger markets, craft public policy, and promote healthier, happier societies.
Q. Tell me about your undergraduate education at Tel Aviv University, where you had a dual major in philosophy and physics. Why did you choose that track?
A. When I started college, I did not have much interest in economics. In fact, I didn’t quite know what economics was. I thought it had something to do with money or markets, and what curious young person is interested in such boring things? I took physics because I wanted to understand how the world works. I took philosophy because I wanted to figure out the meaning of life. In some sense, I thought back then, those were preconditions for developing expertise in a particular field.
Q. How did you wind up in economics?
A. During my second year in college, I found a game theory course taught by Ariel Rubinstein, a renowned Israeli economist. The class sounded fun and counted toward my philosophy credits, so I took it. As it turned out, that class offered me a window into economics and my future career.
I did very well in the course, receiving a perfect score on the final exam. This attracted the attention of Professor Rubinstein, who encouraged my interest in economics and wrote a letter of recommendation when I applied to grad school a couple of years later.
When you think about it, it’s not surprising that I excelled in that course; my other studies had prepared me well. I was exposed to mathematical models in my physics classes and learned about society, politics, and ethical dilemmas in my philosophy classes. Economics is where the two disciplines meet. In economics, you use mathematical models to understand human behaviors, but the building blocks are people, institutions and firms, or society, instead of particles, electrons, and protons.
Q. I was surprised to see that you’re a Princetonian! Did you attend graduate school right after college? Why did you decide to pursue a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics?
A. I took the semi-standard Israeli route. I served in the military for four years after high school, then backpacked through Asia for a few months and worked for a while before starting college. Although I graduated without fully understanding the meaning of life, I never really gave up. The philosophers did not have a good answer for me, so I switched to empirical science where you collect data, design surveys, and ask people what they are looking for when seeking “the good life.” I figured they might give me a better answer.
I started graduate school in Israel to explore economics further, then applied to programs in the United States. I was accepted by Princeton, where I studied economics for five years, earning a Master’s degree and a Ph.D.
Q. You’ve mentioned that the Center for Health and Wellbeing was influential in your career, shaping your research interests and areas of expertise. What facilitated that initial connection?
A. The Center for Health and Wellbeing is where it all started – almost 20 years ago! As a third-year grad student in the Economics Department, Anne Case [Alexander Stewart 1886 Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, emeritus] invited me to have a desk in what was known as CHW’s grad student “six pack,” a group of six work stations located on the third floor of Wallace Hall. Anne, who became my main advisor, helped me focus on my most promising research ideas. We would meet weekly, and she’d give me feedback. She also pushed me to “Just do it!” She showed me how to turn abstract ideas into actual research.
This was the place to be for studying health and wellbeing. I was surrounded by some of the world’s best researchers. In addition to Anne Case, I interacted with Angus Deaton [Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of International Affairs, emeritus], Danny Kahneman [Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, emeritus] and many others at the Center. My Ph.D. research focused on conspicuous consumption – how people try to signal who they are and what they care about through consumer goods. I also did some work on inequalities, economic costs of government corruption, and other things related to social welfare. This is where I became a data-based economist and cemented my interest in wellbeing.
Q. After earning your Ph.D., you launched your career at Cornell University and later joined the faculty at Hebrew University. Why did you choose a career in academia vs. government or the private sector?
A. In my first days of college, I sat on the grass in front of one of the buildings at Tel Aviv University and met people from all over the country. I would talk about Plato and Socrates with the philosophy students, about art and movies with the film students, and about Newton with the physics students. I knew instantly that it was the environment in which I wanted to stay for the rest of my life. I couldn’t be a student forever, so I turned to teaching and research.
Q. Your research examines the psychological, social and cultural aspects of economic behavior. Why does this space intrigue you?
A. I’ve always been fascinated by people and relationships. I want to understand how humans interact, how they form societies and cultures, how they define wellbeing, how they make economic decisions, and how all of this relates to the world around us. That’s the basis of my research.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m deeply involved in the global “Beyond GDP” movement, trying to develop better wellbeing indicators, at both individual and aggregate levels, to supplement traditional, far-from-perfect macroeconomic indicators. For example, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been the primary metric for evaluating national performance and prosperity for decades. While it is useful, GDP is one-dimensional. It mostly accounts for goods and services; it does not consider all of the things that people care about, like health, financial security, access to education, and many other variables. Those additional indicators are important because they provide a more complete picture of “the good life,” and help us measure and compare wellbeing on a broader scale. How do we know if we’re better off or worse off – individually, as a society, as a nation?
Philosophically, it’s hard to define true happiness. But we can glean a lot of valuable information from surveys and data. We can learn a lot by asking people what makes them happy, how happy they are, and which elements of wellbeing are most important to them.
Q. Can you elaborate on that? Why are self-reported wellbeing indicators essential components of the equation?
A. Because there are trade-offs. People want to be healthy, they want to have a good work-life balance, they want to earn a good living, they want to live in a free and equitable society. There are a bunch of things that people want, so we need to measure them all. But then what? Picture a pilot staring at a dashboard of indicators. Some things are high, others are low. How do we make sense of all this information? It’s not enough to simply measure dimensions of wellbeing. We also need to think about dimensions’ relative importance and the trade-offs that people make, so we can understand their values and priorities.
One of my studies with my co-authors, for instance, asked survey respondents to compare pairs of scenarios. We asked people how happy each scenario would make them, and then asked which scenario they would choose. Interestingly, we found that while about 85 percent of the time respondents thought they would choose what would make them happy, 15 percent of the time they were willing to sacrifice some happiness for other things that they felt were important. For example, people said that getting more sleep would make them happier than making more money, but they’d choose the higher income... maybe because they have kids to send to college, retirement to save up for, etc.
This line of research is active and expanding during my time at CHW. My co-authors and I are currently working as an international research team – including other academics, and sometimes also in conversation with policymakers, and government agencies – on a major, NIH-funded study on this topic.
Q. Are you working on any other projects at Princeton?
A. Yes, over the past two years I’ve been applying my expertise to new questions raised by the Covid pandemic. For someone who is interested in the psychological, cultural, and social aspects of economic behavior, welfare, and policy, Covid was the perfect storm. We have a health crisis to mitigate by changing behaviors, norms, and cultures. And we need to do it quickly, through policy, because the virus is spreading. In a sense, I’ve been training all of my life for this moment.
I have a few studies in this area. One of them looks at how people perceived Covid risk during the big waves of 2020, and asks how we can best communicate health-risk information to the public to increase compliance with mitigating behaviors, such as mask-wearing and social distancing. Another line of research measures and compares infection-risk perceptions in three different countries: the U.K., the U.S., and Israel. We have not found many large differences between the countries, but we did notice that respondents from the U.K. and U.S. generally felt that wearing a mask improperly, under one’s nose, substantially increases risk, while respondents from Israel seemed to feel that how one wears their mask doesn’t really matter. We found this interesting. It was indeed much rarer to see people wearing a mask over the nose and mouth in Israel – even though at some point you could get a ticket on the street for wearing a mask inappropriately.
Q. Looking ahead, will your research remain focused on the interests we discussed, or are there other areas you’re excited to dive into?
A. I’ll definitely continue my research in these areas because the work is not complete. We’ve done a lot of research over the last 10 years that is now beginning to get attention from governments. This is the pivotal juncture when we try to figure out what to do with everything we’ve learned on the policy front.
As academics, we live up in the ivory tower. We learn, we publish, we get tenured. But at some point, we need to give back and ensure that our research makes an impact. We must bring our discoveries to policymakers, who can then use those discoveries to make better policies. We have to ask ourselves, “What can we do with our work to make a better world?”
Q. Have you thought about that question? How might your research contribute to a better world?
A. It took 80 or 90 years for the GDP to go from a crazy idea to a measure used by almost 200 countries around the world. On a good day, I think about how my work could be laying the groundwork for another metric – one that could shine a light on the many dimensions of wellbeing and guide policies that ultimately improve people’s lives.
Q. What have you enjoyed most about your visit?
A. Princeton is such a rich, intellectual place. Every Monday I get a list of the week’s events and try to go to as many as possible. I’ve also had opportunities to present my work and to get feedback from the world’s leading researchers, practitioners, and visitors representing the highest levels of policymaking. It’s such a gift to spend time here.
Q. Finally, would you be willing to share a fun fact about yourself?
A. When I was a grad student, I used to DJ at the DBar (“Debasement Bar”), which is in the basement of the Graduate School. I DJ much less these days, but sometimes I’ll do it at my kids’ schools or other events.
Although music is mostly digital now, I still love records. Princeton has one of the best record stores in the United States, so it’s been fun to come back and purchase a bunch of new albums – more stuff to bring back home!