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."

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