Science Watch

Given the California climate, Midwesterners perceive that Californians are relatively happier than Midwesterners, according to a 1998 Psychological Science (Vol. 9, No. 5, pages 340-346) study. Yet the study also found that the Midwesterners' assumptions were wrong; Californians' levels of life satisfaction are pretty similar to Midwesterners.'

Midwesterners' miscalculation may stem from the fact that they are focusing on one positive aspect of Californians' lives, such as the climate, while failing to consider the potential negatives, such as the cost of living, the number of available job opportunities and personal safety.

That's just one example of research suggesting that we are bad at predicting what makes us happy, says Christopher Hsee, PhD, a University of Chicago behavioral sciences and marketing professor.

The reason our assumptions are often inaccurate is simple, says Hsee. "We're not really built to be happy, we're built to survive," he says. "It is only in recent human history that survival is no longer a primary concern and the pursuit of happiness becomes more important."

Small gains

It's a cliché that money cannot buy happiness, and psychologist David Schkade, PhD, a University of Texas, Austin, business professor, suggests the saying is false: Money does factor into people's well-being, it just doesn't matter as much as how people use their free time.

For instance, in a 2006 Science (Vol. 312, No. 5,782, pages 1908-1910) study, Schkade found that people who made more than $90,000 a year were nearly twice as likely to report being "very happy" than people who earned less than $20,000. But there was hardly any difference between people earning $50,000 and $89,999.

"Money makes a difference in getting you safe, warm and fed," he says. "But then once those things are taken care of, it comes down to how you are spending your time: Are you doing the things you would like to be doing?"

The finding suggests that people who are always anxious to get their next raise fail to experience a significant long-term happiness boost because once they earn the raise, they're already seeking their next one. Only when people use their newfound income to spend more time on leisure do they experience a well-being gain.

But for the most part, Schkade found that as people's incomes rise, they do not spend much more time relaxing. In fact, people with incomes between $20,000 and $99,999 reported spending 8.1 percent of their time in leisurely pursuits, which is only slightly less than the 10.2 percent for people with incomes more than $100,000. Yet those higher income earners also reported spending more time taking part in work-related compulsory activities and devoting more of their time to working or commuting.

More money, more responsibility

The finding also offers an explanation as to why a higher income does not provide the boost to people's happiness that others frequently assume: Outside observers focus on how their wealthy neighbors can afford to play golf and take expensive vacations, and they fail to account for the increased time big earners must spend commuting and working.

These blinders are an example of what researchers call a "focusing illusion," where observers make judgments based on wrongly weighted information. And in areas besides raises, this illusion may be the culprit for why we are so bad at predicting what makes us happy, says Schkade.

For instance, when buying a home, people too often focus on curb appeal, or how attractive the house looks from the street, while failing to think about how the house fits their daily needs, he says. For instance, a larger house in the suburbs may make buyers forget about the long commute--and pass up a more modest house in the city, he says.

"Think about what you would be doing with that commute time," says Schkade. "Since commuting is the bottom of the barrel and spending time with your favorite people is enjoyable, that's probably not a good trade."

To remove the blinders, Schkade suggests people systematically reconstruct their daily activities and experiences, and how they felt about them, before making major life decisions.

In a 2004 Science (Vol. 306, No. 5702, pages 1776-1780) article, Schkade and his colleagues asked people to answer general satisfaction questions. They then compiled a short diary of their previous day by thinking about their day as a "continuous series of scenes or episodes of a film." The researchers told participants to write down the times at which each episode began and ended, as well as where they were, who they interacted with and how they felt.

The researchers found that by evoking the context of their previous day, people reduced such errors as the focusing illusion. Moreover, they found that such general circumstances as income and education had little impact on happiness during a regular day.

Another reason people can't predict what makes them happy is their inherent impulsivity, says Hsee.

In a 2006 Trends in Cognitive Science (Vol. 10, No. 1, pages 31-37) article, Hsee found that although people aim to act rationally, that desire, paradoxically, can lead people to make irrational decisions.

For instance, let's say a man has two concert tickets: One cost $100, the other was free. If he read a few reviews that suggest that the free concert will be more enjoyable than the one he paid for, he'd probably go to the free concert. But if he doesn't want to squander the money he paid for the ticket, he'll go to the other concert. Most often, people choose to attend the concert they paid for, says Hsee.

"People often don't spend time to figure out their potential enjoyment," he says. Rather, they seek immediate gratification. Yet as they seek to avoid discomfort and maximize their short-term happiness, they are actually lessening their long-term happiness. But that's not surprising, says Hsee.

"From an evolution point of view, our goal is only to survive now," he says.

Zak Stambor is a Chicago-based freelance writer.