Thursday, December 27, 2007

The focusing illusion and New Year's

Hope everyone's Xmas came out well. I came across an interesting paper today. It's about happiness and questions whether people who live in California are really happier than someone who lives in the Midwest (because of a sunnier climate). Turns out, not at all! You can find the paper here.

What the researchers have found is that Midwesterners believe (keyword: believe) Californians live happier lives with better living across many categories: better job prospects, better financial stability, better academic opportunities. Yet, there is virtually no difference in the real level of satisfaction perceived by a Californian and someone from the Midwest. Both groups of people are equally content about their life prospects, jobs, financial situation, academic opportunities, etc. Why?

One explanation is that when people think of their overall satisfaction with life, they don't consider particulars like climate. This brings up the effect called the focusing illusion, where when attention is drawn to the possibility of significant change of lifestyle, the perceived effect of the change by the person is exaggerated.

I live in New Jersey where the weather leaves much to be desired. Should I think, moving to California will make me happier? I think many people believe this to be the case and vote with their feet, but the change in location doesn't change other areas of my life. I may still be heavily in debt. I may be without a job. Moving to California won't erase my debt and probably won't make it much easier to find a job.

One of the most surprising findings is that paraplegics and lottery prize winners show very little difference in life satisfaction compared to a control group of normal folks. Yet, when people are surveyed, the average opinion is always that paraplegics and lotter prize winners will have huge difference in life satisfaction compared to a normal Joe Smith. I would certainly have chosen the average opinion when in reality there is very little difference. It may be we focus on the change itself rather than the actual state of being in those conditions. The change can be good or bad, but we eventually learn to live with it.

To end on a light note, the paper mentions a study where college students were asked two questions. Question A is, "How happy are you?" Question B is, "How many dates did you have last month?" When question A is posed before B is, there was no relationship between the answers. But when question B is asked before A is, there is a correlation of 66%! Contrary to eHarmony ads, single people may be just as happy as those who have significant others. Additionally, to use the concept of a focus illusion, single people who focus on their being single (like a dollar bill, ha!), the prospect of change (of getting a significant other) and the believed positive life change it may bring may be more exaggerated than real. There is a word in the English language called divorce, afterall.

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