What’s the Big Idea? 

According to Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, we humans are very poor decision makers when it comes to our own happiness. The problem begins with language. We use the word happiness, Kahneman says, to refer to two very different and often mutually contradictory phenomena: the mood of the moment and our overall life-satisfaction. The former is an evanescent and notoriously unreliable gauge of the latter. Example: the joy of buying a new car vs. the subsequent, ongoing annoyance of paying the monthly bills. 

Kahneman’s decades of cognitive research, much of it done in collaboration with longtime colleague Amos Tversky, has shown that humans are subject to what he calls a “focusing illusion.” We focus on the moment, overestimating the importance of certain factors in determining our future happiness and ignoring the factors that really matter. 

For this reason, people commonly assume that moving to a warmer climate will make them significantly happier. This is not the case at all, as a 1998 large-sample study of Kahneman’s showed; overall life satisfaction in the Midwest and California, the regions sampled, was nearly identical. 

[VIDEO] Psychologist Daniel Kahneman on the "focusing illusion" 

Yet human cognitive illusions are so deep-rooted that reading this article and Kahneman’s study isn’t likely to have much effect on whether or not you move to California in search of happiness. This is Kahneman’s unique contribution to psychology – the complex detective work involved in unearthing counterproductive habits of mind so deeply ingrained that they’re nearly impossible to notice.  

As if blindness to our own tendencies to err weren’t bad enough, we’re emotionally committed to our bad decisions because of another bad habit Kahneman has identified – the tendency to trust our snap, intuitive judgments over better, more deliberative decision-making processes. Like all cognitive illusions, this one has a vestigial, evolutionary component: quick thinking keeps you safe from predators. 

What’s the Significance? 

Closer to what we really mean by “happiness” is the long-term, overall sense of well-being Kahneman calls “life satisfaction.” This is the pervading sense that things are right with your world – a basic sense of security in yourself, your world, and the decisions you’ve made. 

Much more important to life satisfaction than what car you drive or what state you live in are your life goals and how close you are to achieving them. Let me back up a bit. If your life goal at age 20 is to own a really great car, and by age 40 you’ve achieved this, your overall level of self-reported life satisfaction will likely be high. Likewise with moving to California. But as Kahneman has consistently shown, if your goal at age 20 is to become a great artist, and at age 40 you are living in California, driving a great car, and practicing law, chances are that you just can’t get no . . . satisfaction. 

The sobering take home lesson here is that in some crucial areas, we don’t know and we can’t fully trust ourselves. On the bright side, Kahneman’s work shows that the kinds of errors we tend to make are extremely predictable. While studying our own cognition may never completely free us from its traps, it should at least give us pause to reflect and distance enough to make a few better decisions.

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