Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Counting your blessings and keeping up with the Joneses

In Brief

Counting your blessings and keeping up with the Joneses

Surveys and psychological experiments show that you probably won't be any happier in the long run if you win the lottery today, or less happy in the long run even if you lose your job or your marriage breaks up tomorrow. It's been found that for any given person, despite ups and downs due to circumstances, subjective well-being (happiness) repeatedly reverts to a certain level. This has been called the happiness setpoint or described discouragingly as a hedonic treadmill. The setpoint depends, more than we might like, on heredity. According to twin and adoption studies, heredity accounts for 50% of individual differences in experienced happiness.

Why do people persist in believing that they would surely be happier if, say, they had a little more money? One explanation is what the authors of an article in Science call the focusing illusion. They summarize it in the epigram, "Nothing is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it."

This tendency to exaggerate the importance of whatever is on our minds can be manipulated experimentally. In one study, college students were asked how happy they were and then how many dates they had had in the last month. There was no correlation. A correlation appeared only when the order of the questions was reversed, encouraging the students to make comparisons. The same effect occurs when questions about happiness are paired in this way with questions about marriage, health, or income.

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