Kahneman includes a graph that tracks life satisfaction between the four years before and the five years after a person gets married. It starts low and gradually increases, peaking at the year of marriage, and then gradually decreases over time. Kahneman describes how the graph usually evokes nervous laughter, because it appears to show that there is a steep decline of life satisfaction in the years after marriage.
Once again, Kahneman demonstrates our inherent tendency to assume causal relationships in statistics—people laugh nervously at the graph because they seem to assume that marriage causes life satisfaction to decline as the years decline.
The figure takes on a different meaning, however, when we remember that “How satisfied are you with your life?” is not a simple question. When answering it, people think of significant events in the recent past or near future. People who are recently married or expecting to marry are likely to retrieve that fact, which affects their answer. But those who are not do not think of marriage when answering. The graph could be read as the likelihood that people will think of their marriage when asked about their lives.
This demonstrates once again how we are “blind to our blindness”—how we are unaware of the heuristic mistakes that we make. In evaluating this graph, people do not understand that respondents have substituted their answer to how satisfied they are with their life with how easily they can think of happy events in their lives.
There is a low correlation between circumstances and satisfaction with life because experienced happiness and life satisfaction are heritable traits. People who appear equally fortunate vary greatly in how happy they are. The goals that people set for themselves are also important in helping them achieve happiness: young people who list being well-off financially as essential are more likely to achieve it. Experienced well-being, therefore, should not be the only meter of happiness. People do not engage in a careful evaluation of life—they make substitutions.
Kahneman understands the value of different ways of measuring happiness, but here he appears to acknowledge the limits of these kinds of measurements. People are rarely subjective when they answer these kinds of questions, but at the same time objective measures do not tell the whole story (as demonstrated by the two equally fortunate people who are not equally happy).
Kahneman introduces another concept about happiness and well-being that has to do with attention: nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it. If asked, “How much pleasure do you get from your car?” an answer comes to mind immediately, but the question people are really answering is, “How much pleasure do you get from your car when you think about it?” Most of the time, people do not think about their car, even when they are driving it. This is called the focusing illusion.
The focusing illusion serves as a particularly tricky bias when we answer questions. If a person is asked to evaluate their car, they cannot help but focus on it—but this additional automatic focus biases their intuitions and causes them to overestimate the pleasure or frustration they have with it. And again, as with other biases, they often do not realize that they have been affected simply by directing attention.
A similar bias distorts judgments of the happiness of Californians. Most people believe Californians are happier because of the climate, but most Californians are unlikely to think of the climate when asked about their global happiness. This is not true, however, for people who recently moved to California, who are more likely to think about this recent change when asked about happiness. Over time, with few exceptions, attention is withdrawn from a new situation as it becomes familiar. The main exceptions are chronic pain, constant exposure to loud noise, and severe depression—all of which attract one’s attention.
One can see how the focusing illusion can lead to common misconceptions—like thinking that Californians are happier because of the weather. This survey demonstrates another example of how people (like those who have recently moved) make substitutions when they globally evaluate their happiness, evaluating how happy their new climate makes them.
In a study conducted by one of Kahneman’s undergraduate students, the student collected data on people who were asked about the percentage of time that paraplegics spent in a bad mood. Some were told that the crippling accident had occurred a month earlier, and some a year earlier. The respondents also indicated whether they knew a paraplegic personally. Her findings showed that personal acquaintance made little difference if the accident had occurred a month earlier. But people who knew a paraplegic estimated that they had much better moods a year after the accident than people who did not personally know a paraplegic—they understood the gradual recovery of mood that most people experience.
Like the previous assumptions that people make about the global happiness of Californians, this experiment serves as another example of the way in which people misconstrue what factors into evaluations of happiness on a day-to-day level. They assume that paraplegics’ moods depend exclusively on their disability, even after they have had a year to become accustomed to it. People thus do not realize how much the things they devote attention to can affect their mood and happiness.
Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson introduced the word miswanting to describe bad choices that arise from errors of forecasting. Compare two commitments: buying a new car and joining a group that meets weekly, like a poker or book club. People overestimate the long-term benefits of the car, but do not make the same mistake for a social gathering, because social gatherings demand attention.
Kahneman ended the previous chapter by writing that a way to become happier is by spending time doing things we like with people we like, which is corroborated by this example. The things that System 2 focuses on—the book club, for example—make us happier than the things that we gradually no longer devote attention to.