Will money make you happy? Beware the focusing effect!

September 25, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

Erika’s post regarding Psychology’s Top Blunders brought to mind another pitfall to those who do psychology. One aspect of Erika is post is that priming can corrupt the results of projection testing. This reminded me of an article I recently read regarding attempts to measure how “happy” people are. The article is “Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion.”  I found the article in the June 30, 2006 edition of Science (http://www.sciencemag.com/ -available only to subscribers online).

Experimenters have often tried to find how satisfied someone is with his or her life, but such questions elicit a global evaluation. People tend to exaggerate the importance of a single factor on their overall well-being. The authors refer to this as the “focusing illusion.” This illusion can be the source of error in personal decision-making. 

Here’s an example. First, assume the experimenter asks these two questions in this order: 1) “How happy are you with your life in general?” and 2) “How many dates did you have last month?” In this case, there is no statistical correlation between the two questions. When you reverse the order of this questioning, however, the correlation becomes highly significant. “The dating question evidently caused that aspect of life to become salient and its importance to be exaggerated when the respondents encountered the more general question about their happiness.” The authors indicate that these focusing effects have also been observed when the respondent’s attention is first directed to their marriage or health.

Here’s the basic conclusion of this article: “People do not know how happy or satisfied they are with their life in the way they know their height or telephone number. The answers to global life satisfaction questions are constructed only when asked, and are, therefore, susceptible to the focusing of attention on different aspects of life.”

By the way, surveys conducted over many decades in many countries indicate that, on average, people do not report any greater happiness despite large widespread increases in real income per capita. Will money really make you happy? Only temporarily. This same article reports that increases in income have mostly a transitory effect on general happiness. There is actually a downside to money, because family income positively and significantly correlates with ratings of anger, anxiousness and excitement. Thus, higher income “was associated with more intense negative experienced emotions and greater arousal, but not greater experienced happiness.”

The authors’ assumption is thus that “hedonic adaptation” has little effect on well-being “above a certain level of consumption.” What is that level?  People making less than $20,000 report drastically lower levels of happiness than those making $90,000 or more.  The authors suggest, though, that much of this difference in reporting is due to the focusing illusion.  Their caveat is even more apropos regarding less drastic differences in income.  On a personal level, this article should cause middle income earners to carefully consider whether jobs paying $5,000 more than their current jobs will really make them happier.

Equally interesting is the authors’ assumption that, as income rises, the activities in a person’s life do not shift “toward activities that are associated with improved affect.” In short, as wealth increases, people tend to spend more time working and doing compulsory nonwork activities (such as shopping, child care, commuting and exercise) and spend less of their time engaging in passive leisure activities (such as socializing and watching television). The bottom line is that greater income does not increase happiness, but does slightly increase tension and stress.

Many people work hard to become wealthy, driven on by the focusing illusion. They put their noses to the grindstones as a result of attending to novel activities that they associate with greater income. Research is shown, however, that the effect of these income gains diminishes and that attention eventually shifts back to those “less novel aspects of daily life.”

By the way, there seems to be a resurgence in the study of happiness.  For example, I have purchased (but only begun to read) a collection of papers edited by Daniel Kahneman (a top rate researcher and theoretician, well known for his work on heuristics and biases): Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (2003).

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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's an excerpt I received on private email:

    You may want to check out a relatively new book by Daniel T. Gilbert, a social psychologist at Harvard. The book is called Stumbling on Happiness and I've heard that it's both an informative and an entertaining read, though I haven't yet read it.

    From what I know of Gilbert's work, he asserts that people tend to overestimate both the happiness and unhappiness they will experience as a result of various life events. In other words, being diagnosed with diabetes or going through a divorce often don't end up sucking as much as we estimate initially, just like buying a new car or attaining a "dream job" don't end up making us as delirious as predicted. My husband and I kidded each other about this over the couple months leading up to the purchase of our new Prius. "It will change our lives!" we said. "We will be deliriously happy!" And then, after the purchase, "Are you deliriously happy?"

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