- People’s remembered well-being seems to be influenced by their current level of life satisfaction.
- Happy people overstate the improvement of their life satisfaction; unhappy ones exaggerate its decline.
- People’s choices and decisions might be biased by distorted memories of their past choices’ outcomes.
Are you happier now than you were at this time last year? To answer this question, you will need to reflect on your memories of last year and compare them to your current state. But how reliable and accurate are your memories of last year?
This is not a trivial question. If your memories of last year are somehow biased or distorted, then your appraisal of your happiness trajectory—and by extension, your life—may be distorted.
A recent (2020) paper by Alberto Prati (University of Oxford) and Claudia Senik (Sorbonne University) set out to explore this issue. The researchers first mined a large data set from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), analyzing longitudinal data from over 20,000 participants.
They looked at the links between several variables, including current life satisfaction (ratings of the question “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall?”); life satisfaction (Last year’s answer to the same question); observed change in life satisfaction (comparing the two); and reported change in life satisfaction (the answer to the question: “Would you say that you are more satisfied with life, less satisfied or feel about the same as you did a year ago?”).
First, they found that average current life satisfaction across the sample was on the high end, (5.19 out of 7), a finding that aligns with previous research showing that most people are happy. Second, they found that happiness levels tended toward stability. Most people reported being as satisfied as last year. When changes were reported, they skewed positively. Answers reporting a positive change outnumbered those reporting a negative change.
Third, they found that people were able to track changes in their happiness. Those who had observed increases in life satisfaction tended to report a positive change three times more often than a negative one. Participants with observed decreases in life satisfaction reported twice more negative changes than positive ones.
Yet the majority of people tracked their happiness incorrectly. That is, they reported changes that differed from observed changes.
The authors then Incorporated an analysis of a second longitudinal data set from a French monthly consumer confidence survey of a representative sample of over 18,000 French people. The survey asks about current life satisfaction as well as the level of satisfaction one year ago.
Results from this sample showed that “the average reported well-being at a point of time is higher than the average well-being recalled for the same period.” In other words, conclude the authors, ”Most people report an evolution of life satisfaction that is different from the one observed over time… On average, people tend to overstate the improvement in their life satisfaction over time.”
The authors then analyzed the links between observed and reported life satisfaction, focusing on positive (reported > observed satisfaction) vs. negative (observed > reported) discrepancies. They wanted to see whether different reporting biases are linked to current life satisfaction. To that end, they looked at participants’ answers to another BHPS survey question: “Would you say that you are more satisfied with life, less satisfied, or feel about the same as you did a year 8 ago?”
The results revealed the existence of two opposite patterns: Those who misreport in the positive direction score significantly higher in life satisfaction than the rest of the sample. Those who err on the negative side reported significantly lower current life satisfaction. The authors conclude that “More satisfied people tend to overstate the improvement in their life satisfaction; conversely, unsatisfied people tend to understate it.”
Finally, the authors explored whether recall biases are limited to recent happiness or may generalize across time. To that end, they used the German SocioEconomic Panel (SOEP), a data set with over 11,000 participants who were asked to “reconstruct the pattern of their life satisfaction over the previous ten years.” Comparing these retrospective answers to the participants’ yearly reports of satisfaction, the authors found that “More satisfied people tend to overstate the improvement in their life satisfaction; conversely, unsatisfied people tend to understate it… This holds for the recall of both recent and remote happiness.”
The authors conclude: “People’s remembered well-being seems to be influenced by their current level of life satisfaction. While happy people tend to overstate the positive evolution of their life satisfaction, unhappy ones tend to exaggerate its worsening.”
The authors leave open the question of the possible cognitive mechanisms that may be responsible for this systematic bias. Yet, they argue, the fact that people’s current happiness influences recalled past happiness in predictable ways suggests that “people’s choices and decisions might be biased by wrong memories of their past choices’ outcomes.”
This appears to be a version of the "the rich get richer" phenomenon, as happy people tend to believe they are getting happier, and vice versa. As is the case in the financial arena, this bifurcated trend has implications for the future. Over time, these biases may lead to divergent life strategies, elevating happy people further upward while pushing unhappy ones further downward.
Since happiness levels are linked to behavior, we may predict that these two groups will manifest different ways of being. For example, happy people may over time grow in optimism, trust, and openness to experience while unhappy people may spiral into ever-increasing pessimism, mistrust, and fear.
The authors do not venture into offering solutions, yet their findings align well with cognitive research showing how distorted memories, thoughts, and perceptions may undermine decision-making and mental health. As such, these findings point to a promising line of inquiry for therapy researchers, looking into clinical interventions that may help clients correct faulty happiness memories (for example, through careful journaling and record-keeping over time) in order to improve the accuracy of their well-being appraisals, which may in turn lead to improved mood and to more adaptive behavioral habits.