Our happiness forecasts are often wrong

Man thinking.
Getting stuck in 'what if?' thinking can lead us astray.

Do you ever look back on something that once seemed important to you and wonder: wow, why did I think that was such a big deal?


In his classic book Thinking, Fast and Slow, cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes about what he calls the focusing illusion. What exactly is the focusing illusion? Kahneman describes it in a single sentence, namely that ‘nothing in life is as important as you think it is, when you are thinking about it’.


For example, you might think you would he happy forever if you won the lottery, or at the very least really happy most of the time.


Similarly, you might think a paraplegic must be really unhappy with their life.


When you think about winning the lottery, you focus on your initial joy and elation and the novelty of it all, paying attention to all that would be new in your life. However, the reality is this elation doesn’t last. Lottery winners don’t devote every single minute of their days to thinking about how they won the lottery. They get used to it and stop paying attention to it.


Similarly, someone who is left paralysed after a car accident is likely to be terribly unhappy for a while, but they too will adapt over time to their new life circumstances. As Kahneman has noted, a paraplegic is not a paraplegic full-time. He or she will do other things – for example, enjoy their meals, meet up with friends, read the newspaper. Just as the lottery winner won’t spend their days thinking about their lottery win, the paraplegic will be experiencing and thinking of things other than their disability. They might be less happy than before, but research shows the drop in happiness levels tends to be less stark than people think.


The focusing illusion is exploited by marketers and leads to what some psychologists have called ‘mis-wanting’ – that is, when we really want things that may not actually make us any happier. A new car, the latest smartphone, a promotion at work, a bigger house – we often place too much importance on getting certain things, failing to fully appreciate that the novelty will wear off and we will get used to them.



Unhappy man.
Our brains are wired to look for threats.

Importantly, the same is true in relation to things we may worry about. As humans, we have a built-in negativity bias. If three work colleagues tell you your office presentation was excellent and one tells you it was poor, you’re much more likely to dwell on the critical comment. Our brains are wired to look out for threats of all kinds, which means the negative tends to be more powerful than the positive. Bad is stronger than good, as one researcher put it.


Combine this negativity bias with the focusing illusion and you’ve got a problem. What if I suggest something at work and my boss doesn't like the idea? What if my partner doesn’t like the birthday present I got him? What if I don’t get the grade I want in my essay? What will I do if XYZ happens?


Well, I can’t say for sure what will happen if your boss says he or she doesn’t like the idea, or if your partner doesn’t like your birthday present, or if you don’t get the grade you want, or what you will do if XYZ happens, but my guess is this: you’ll get over it quicker than you think you will. Psychological research confirms that most of our worries don’t actually come true, but that even when they are realised, people almost invariably deal with the situations better than they thought they would.


It’s easy to overestimate how important certain things are. This is especially the case when we get stuck in thinking about something; the more you think about it, the more important it can seem, so you think about it even more and end up going round in circles. However, the reality is things that we may think to be very important, even life-changing, often get forgotten pretty quickly.


That’s why it pays to remember Kahneman’s line – nothing in life is as important as you think it is, when you are thinking about it.