The Focusing Illusion bias and how it impacts our judgement of perceived life happiness and wellbeing.
In part two of our continued exploration into the nature and substance of happiness, we explore what cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman called The Focusing Illusion. The Focusing Illusion suggests that these things we think and believe are so important, are only so because we are thinking about them. Be they perceived good or bad, they influence our happiness to the degree we allow. Now at face value, this may seem preposterous. The joy of getting married or the sorrow associated with the passing of a loved one loom large in our consciousness, and are important. Nonetheless, in the following article we will explore the science and the reasoning behind this apparent truth. We will look at why, on self-assessment of our lives, we often fail to see the bigger picture.
The Rise & Fall of Life Satisfaction
My wife wants a new car–a Peugeot 3008. She's in love with it, beams with happiness when she talks about the prospect of having it. We already have a family car. The earlier model 2008, apart from a few bumps and bruises, is in great nic. Mileage is very low and it runs perfect. It's a good size, the seats are higher off the road than regular cars, and it has never given any trouble. Except for that time when “someone” let it run out of juice and then flattened the battery trying to start it.
There's no practical reason in the world why we should buy it. And in addition, it means taking out a loan to do so. As if the good condition of our existing motor was not reason enough, buying the new wagon means adding an unnecessary cost to our monthly outgoings. She wants it nonetheless. Much like everyone else, she is convinced that her life will be better for the having of this thing. My job is to bring to the conversation, the inevitable consequence of diminishing emotional returns.
I don't exclude myself from impact of this affliction; the illusion that our lives will be better for the having of things, status, and the admiration of other people. Arguably, it's what motivates and drives human behaviour. We each, to our individual degree and choice of love object, fall fowl to clever marketing. We believe that the future will be better than the present or that our lives are better or worse than they actually are. Regardless, this illusion seems consistent in its uncanny ability to let us down.
The Focusing Illusion
It's the feeling you get when you renovate your house, buy new shoes, eat a bar of chocolate, or when you find money in the street. You feel a measured increase in your state of positive emotion both in the run up to the moment you have it in your hand, and the period immediately afterwards. These positive events stand out for us, and according to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast & Slow1, they influence our perception of subjective happiness. Not only this, but they cloud our ability to measure our lives accurately.
In the concluding chapter of his book, Kahneman cites a study by the German Socio-Economic Panel 2, where participants were asked about their satisfaction with life over a given period of years. Amongst the questions the researchers posed were those related to major life events, such as marriage, in the preceding year.
Marriage & Life Satisfaction
The following graphs illustrates male and female respondents' feelings about life reported in the years close to when they were married.
We can see from the graphs above that reported life satisfaction increases up to the beautiful day, but then declines in the proceeding years. The apparent novelty seems to wear off as the reality of life and all its challenges take hold. Kahneman suggests that perhaps we get married in the hope the future will be better than today, or that we may maintain the blissful status quo. He cites Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson's research and asks if we have become victim to the “massive error” of affective forecasting3 which accounts for the error in forecasting our future feelings about life.
For example, we want to be able to predict whether we will get married and have children, because we believe these life events are crucial determinants of happiness. On the marriage study results, Kahneman says that on the day a couple marry, they may know that rates of divorce and separation are high, but don't apply this apply this to themselves. He says we can, of course, explain this data as representing a normal adjustment to life.
But Kahneman says we instead need to examine “the heuristics of judgement”. Or, how it is we arrive at answers to questions such as; “How satisfied are you with your life? and “How happy are you these days?” He says that these questions are not as straight forward as those such as “what is your telephone number?” but respondents often arrive at answers to all of these questions in only a few seconds. Kahneman says that people tend to have ready-made answers, or answers that recent events influence us. He says that this represents the fast acting System 1 which jumps into gear with little conscious control or deliberation on our part.
The Focusing Illusion: Take Happiness With A Pinch of Salt
Any apparent single event or series of events can influence our perception of life satisfaction and happiness. They are the perceived outcomes of what Kahneman calls The Focusing Illusion. More often, he says, we are not even aware that our minds have taken over. System 1 substitutes our interpretations of simpler life events for global evaluations of life. An illustration of this comes from a study by Norbert Schwarz in his 1988 examination of priming and communication4.
Schwarz and colleagues ran experiments that examined the way people use information when making global judgments. In particular, they explored the way in which a question about a specific component of life satisfaction influenced a subsequent judgment of overall life satisfaction. Before completing the questionnaire, participants were asked to photocopy a document as a favour. Perceiving it not part of the study, they obliged. Half of the participants found coins on the photocopier planted by Schwarz, and results subsequently showed the lucky ones were higher on life satisfaction.
Of course, chance events of good or bad fortune are not the only influences on our perception of global life happiness. Recent history, as shown in the marriage data above, life tragedies, health, career success, family and financial circumstances, peer group influences and global events all bear heavy on our perception of happiness. However, Kahneman cautions that our evaluation of overall happiness likely comes down to a small sample of available concepts rather than a measured evaluation. Therefore, we might be better served taking these snapshot evaluations with, as he suggests, a pinch of salt.
Attention: The Key To Happiness
According to Kahneman, attention is the key to the question of life happiness and suggests that it is the events of now that really matter. Where we consider our happiness about life, we are bound to be influenced by recent events, and the marriage graphs reinforce this idea. Kahneman's studies have shown that by measuring the speed of participant responses, considered evaluation of life happiness is generally absent.
When it comes to the focusing illusion, nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it, Kahneman says. The basis of the focusing illusion, he continues, is “what you see is all there is”. Or, you're giving too much weight to a single factor as a determinant of wellbeing and happiness.
So what's the bottom line?
Seems like a round about way of saying, if you want happiness, climb down from your head and get into the present moment. It seems to me that in all psychological investigation, we come to the same inevitable answer. That is, happiness is available now. As we allow our minds to drift to fanciful notions of the future, we take our eyes off the ground and miss the holes in the road. Same goes for lamenting the past–we fail to be present.
Where is our attention set? To what are we giving our focus and time?
We seem forever in need of escape from the only moment that life occurs. The car will make me happy, or the wife or husband. The new job will make me happy, the TV or the movies or some gadget or other. New lips or new tits, a rock hard six pack or bronzed skin. Whatever it is that will make me happy, fulfilled and whole, it's not here. It's somewhere out there.
So we keep looking, meanwhile creating grand illusions to keep us from ourselves.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
- Clark, A. E., Diener, E., Georgellis, Y., & Lucas, R. E. (2008). Lags and leads in life satisfaction: A test of the baseline hypothesis. The Economic Journal, 118(529), F222-F243.
- Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting.
- Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Schwarz, N. (1988). Priming and communication: Social determinants of information use in judgments of life satisfaction. European journal of social psychology, 18(5), 429-442.
David Terrell says
Mary Jane has it right, which is the point you’re making. If you think you’re happy, you are happy. That concept is indistinguishable from Baba Ram Dass’s concept of Be Here Now all those decades ago. If you are going there, then your concept of happiness is close to or indistinguishable from a state of complete mindfulness in every moment, which is also known as enlightenment from several millennia ago. I’m guessing you are going to use other words and concepts to describe it. I have always thought that our Western European culture would eventually find objective-reality definitions for the subjective reality we have always considered enlightenment (satori, nirvana, etc.) to be. Looking forward to your next installment.
Thanks for your input David, we’re on the same page. I think what’s also relevant in all of this is that whatever moment to moment experiences we have, and additionally the more impactful ones, we don’t get too caught up in it. Now that’s all well and good talking about it from a distance but another thing entirely when we’re in it.
Mary Jane says
Another great article Larry. I completely agree about focusing on the now. That’s all we really have to work with. There is however something to be said about experiencing quality things, such as a well engineered vehicle. For example, even after five years, every time I drive my Powerstroke, I feel exhilarated with the performance, the purr of the diesel engine and the turbo’s whistle. That IMO is happiness here and now. And, if you think you’re happy, then I guess you are.
Mary Jane, I’m glad you liked it. And your point is valid! Getting in the moment no matter what we’re doing is key