A Focusing Illusion

By Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk | September 1, 2006 | 0 comments

Does money buy happiness? When we see a multi-millionaire on her yacht or pictures of a family vacation in a place we can’t afford, it’s awfully hard to answer, “No.” But scientific research has repeatedly challenged that assumption. Now a recent study has found that although people with high incomes are more likely than others to say they’re generally happy with their lives, this difference virtually disappears when they make a moment-to-moment assessment of how happy they really are.

In the study, published in Science, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his co-authors argue that a phenomenon known as the “focusing illusion” misleads people into believing that more money can—or does—make them happier.

“When people consider the impact of any single factor on their well-being—not only income—they are prone to exaggerate its importance,” write the authors. So when survey respondents are asked, for example, whether wealthier people are happier than those less well-off, they tend to focus on financial status as the root of happiness. Perhaps seduced by thoughts of plasma TVs and seaside resorts, they make too much of the effect wealth can have on one’s well-being.

In reality, according to the study, higher income does little to improve life satisfaction, and may even cause more anxiety and stress. “In some cases,” explain the authors, “this focusing illusion may lead to a misallocation of time, from accepting lengthy commutes to sacrificing time spent socializing.” Indeed, in the results of a national survey the authors analyzed, people with an income above $100,000 reported spending more time at work and commuting. This may help to explain why so many people with relatively high incomes reported in the survey that they’re generally happy with their lives, but don’t actually experience as much happiness in their daily lives as they say they do. “People do not know how happy or satisfied they are with their life in the way they know their height or telephone number,” the authors write.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

About The Author

Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement