Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion"

Read the full article by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, David Schkade, Norbert Schwarz, and Arthur A. Stone online in Science magazine. (Science 30 June 2006: Vol. 312. no. 5782, pp. 1908 - 1910. Subscription required.)

Abstract: "The belief that high income is associated with good mood is widespread but mostly illusory. People with above-average income are relatively satisfied with their lives but are barely happier than others in moment-to-moment experience, tend to be more tense, and do not spend more time in particularly enjoyable activities. Moreover, the effect of income on life satisfaction seems to be transient. We argue that people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness because they focus, in part, on conventional achievements when evaluating their life or the lives of others."
The ancient Greek definition of happiness was the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.
John F. Kennedy

I am a great admirer of Daniel Kahneman and what I guess might be called his school. He has and they have done a lot to clarify our understanding of the way people think. And indeed, this report in Science is interesting and informative. However, I think the report would be easy to misunderstand and to misrepresent. I would suggest, for example that the article confounds "being in a good mood" with "being happy", and indeed "being satisfied with one's life" with "being happy".
Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.
Louis Armstrong (about jazz)

I think I attach the concept of "pleasure" to "being happy in in moment-to-moment experience" and to "particularly enjoyable activities", but not necessarily the concept of "happiness". I don't know how the dimension "relaxed versus tense" relates to that of "unhappy versus happy", but I would guess that there is very little correlation; can't one can be happy and tense, or unhappy and relaxed? (The goalie on the leading side of a World Cup football match is probably pretty happy and pretty tense; the players on the losing side after a match may well be relaxed but unhappy.)

I suspect the article is most useful in discussing the difference between subjective and objective measures of well-being. The discussion of the "focusing illusion" is useful for those who would do survey research. It illustrates a more general issue that people's response to a survey question depends on their "set", and the set can be established by the preceeding questions.
Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.
Schkade and Kahneman

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