But will it make you happy?

by Michael Nugent on June 3, 2008

Why do people believe that living in California would make them feel happier than people who do live in California actually are? And why do people, who are afraid of being rejected, want more drugs than people who have actually been rejected?

There are several reasons.

If you are a typical human being, you are bad at remembering why you felt happy in the past, good at knowing how happy you feel now, okay at predicting roughly what will make you feel happy in the future, but bad at predicting how happy you will feel if specific events happen. That’s the conclusion of scientists who have researched this fascinating area.

Past, Present and Future

How happy were you last year? That’s too much detail to calculate, so your mind takes a short cut. You focus mainly on your highest highs, your lowest lows, and the most recent events. However, if I had asked you, at random times during the past year, how you actually felt at that moment, and I combined your answers, they would be different – and more accurate. This has been tested by using randomly-timed buzzers to alert people to write down how they are feeling, then checking later what they remember about their feelings.

Are you happy now with your life in general? Again, your mind takes a short cut: if you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to say yes. Nevertheless, your answer is likely to match with external ways of checking how happy you are, such as physiological signs and how happy your family and friends think you are. Are you satisfied with your work? Hobby? Marriage? Now that’s more specific. Regardless of your mood, your mind compares how things are with how things could be. Again, pretty accurately.

What will make you happy next year? You can predict most things fairly accurately. However, you are also influenced by your mistaken beliefs about what made you happy last year. And your mind over-predicts the impact that changes will bring. Lottery winners are less happy than we expect, and crippled accident victims less unhappy. When we think of these events, we focus on the change of becoming a lottery winner or accident victim, not on the ongoing reality of being one. Over time, we adapt to most changes. Millionaires face new problems. Disabled people develop new interests.

Impact Bias

Three psychologists and an economist pioneered much of the research on how we predict our feelings, and how accurate our predictions are. They are Daniel Gilbert in Harvard, Tim Wilson in Virginia, Daniel Kahneman in Princeton and George Lowenstein in Carnegie-Melon. They call this ‘affective forecasting’ (in psychology, the word ‘affect’ means feeling or emotion). Here’s some of what they found.

Broadly speaking, you can accurately predict that winning the lottery or seeing your sports team win a trophy will make you feel happy. However, you mistakenly believe that these events will make you feel happier, and for longer, than they actually do. That’s why Daniel Kahneman and others found that people believe that living in California would make them happier than people who do live in California actually are.

Also, broadly speaking, you can accurately predict that a serious illness or a death in the family will make you feel unhappy. However, you mistakenly believe that these events will make you feel unhappier, and for longer, than they actually do. That’s why Tim Wilson and others found that people, who are facing possible rejection, want more mood-enhancing drugs than people who have actually been rejected.

Daniel Gilbert calls this ‘impact bias’ or ‘miswanting’. And it gets worse. Because, when you do get the new trinket you have coveted for ages, and when it gradually dawns you that you are not as happy as you thought you would be, you often react by ‘miswanting’ something else instead, and the cycle continues. The same thing happens with bad events. When something bad happens to you, and when it gradually dawns you that you are not as unhappy as you feared you would be, you often start instead to fear a different bad event more than you should do.

Empathy Gap

Your mood when you decide what you want is also a factor. When you are calm, reflective and rational, you cannot accurately predict what you will want when you are aroused, anxious or fearful. That’s why it can be a bad idea to go food shopping when you are hungry, or to go on a date without a condom. George Lowenstein calls this ‘the empathy gap’ between being in a ‘cold state’ or a ‘hot state’.

There are many other examples of this empathy gap in action. Some are summarised by Elizabeth Dunn and others of New South Wales in their 2007 paper on what they call ‘Emotional Time Travel’.

Once you own something, you can become more attached to it than you thought that you would before you owned it. That’s why buyers (who don’t yet own an object) often think that the seller is demanding too much money, and sellers (who do own the object) often think that the buyer should be prepared to pay more.

Women often predict that, if they were sexually harassed, they would feel angry and confront the harasser, whereas women who are actually sexually harassed are more likely to feel afraid and to avoid confrontation. That’s why female jurors often give less credibility than they should to the evidence of women who have been sexually harassed.

Also, you think differently about events that are further away in the future. If you are choosing a series of videos to watch later, you are more likely to include a serious high-brow movie, but if you are choosing just one video to watch now, you are more likely to choose a low-brow entertaining movie.

Possible Solutions

Here are four ways of becoming more accurate when you are predicting how future events will make you feel.

The first is very simple – just knowing that impact bias and empathy gaps exist, can help you to counter them.

Secondly, when remembering how past events made you feel, try to remember a series of events, not just one. If you just remember one event, it is likely to be an extreme, untypical example. If you do only remember one, at least remind yourself that it may be extreme and untypical.

Thirdly, when predicting how future events will make you feel, try to put the event in context. Think of the inevitability of change. Think of many different possible outcomes. Think of bad aspects of good outcomes, and good aspects of bad outcomes. And think of other things that will also be happening in your life that will distract you from the event in question. For example, your social relationships can help to counter career problems, and vice versa.

And finally, get older. Older people are less likely to over-predict how future events will make them feel, simply because they have been through so many similar events in their lives.


  • Photo: California by Scott Klettke (cc)
  • On Emotionally Intelligent Time Travel: Individual Differences in Affective Forecasting. Dunn et al. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2007; 33: 85-93
  • When to Fire: Anticipatory versus Postevent Reconstrual of Uncontrollable Events. Wilson et al. Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2004; 30, 1-12
  • The Futile Pursuit of Happiness, by John Gertner, article in New York Times Magazine, Sep 7 2003
  • Well-Being: the Foundations of Hedonic Psychology, Russell Sage, 1999
  • Does Living in California Make People Happy? A Focusing Illusion in Judgments of Life Satisfaction. Schkade and Kahneman, Psychological Science 1998; 9, 340-46

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antaine June 9, 2008 at 5:39 pm

Very interesting article. This page looks an awful lot better than the last. Keep up the thought provoking good work! You’ve hit the nail on the head with the topic of happiness being the most important objective.

2 Declan Chellar June 22, 2008 at 11:19 am

Tag! You’re it, Michael.

Meme: What makes me feel happy like I was six again


3 Tina Storey October 1, 2008 at 1:37 pm

Nicely observed.

I am finding that I actually (shock!) am not really worried about the financial downturn/crisis in the stock market. I lived through the 1970s and 1980s already and still have a good life now, as does my family. I never trusted the celtic tiger bandwagon and now am not worried now about falling off.
Everything is cyclical. I heard George Lee comparing the crash to 1929 – sure, that was utterly devastating for very many people – but the human race survived and went on to achieve incomparable wealth in many areas. Within 30 years the USA was the world’s economic leader.

Perhaps I am just naive.

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