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.

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Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk


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