Be Careful What You Focus On

Why the focusing illusion can lead to bad decisions, and how to override it.

Posted Mar 05, 2018

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Raise your hand if you’ve spent any time in the past month dreaming about a different life. A fresh start in a new house or a new city. An exciting new relationship. Maybe selling all of your possessions to travel the world for a year. Enticing ideas, especially when things in your current life don’t feel like they’re going as smoothly as you’d like. But research suggests you should hold off before trading it all in for a new life. Why? Because we are all subject to the focusing illusion, which leads us to overweigh the importance of whatever we are currently focusing on.

Humor me for a second and tell me who you think is happier – someone living in California or in Ohio. Most people (whether from California or Ohio), guess California. But if you do what Schkade and Kahneman (1998) did and actually ask people in California and Ohio about their current life satisfaction, they don’t differ. People also vastly overestimate how happy more money would make them – although people who earn more tend to be a little more satisfied with their lives, the difference between earning $75,000 and $125,000 isn’t nearly as much as people expect — and the difference between $1 million and $5 million may not be either, according to new research.

Why do most people think Californians are happier if they are not? When you compare California and Ohio, most people go right to obvious differences such as California's seemingly better climate. And yes, especially in March, living near the beach in California sounds like a sweet deal. But in reality, climate doesn’t matter as much as we think it does. We tend to focus on these in-your-face differences and underestimate the importance of the factors that really matter – job opportunities, educational attainment, one’s financial situation, safety, being near family and friends. So, while a mild winter sounds like something that would surely lift your spirits, when it comes down to how happy you feel from one day to the next, having a good job, feeling safe and secure, and enjoying your social life all matter much more than the temperature outside. Sure, on a really cold day or a really hot day you might notice the change in weather. And Ohioans might really appreciate those first days of spring. But these are small moments, not defining features of your happiness. Same with income – having more money would be nice (and if you really do not have enough to live on, an increase in income will make a bigger difference). If you are earning a decent salary, the 15% increase in salary at a new job might sound life-changing, but you adjust quickly to this difference and begin to focus on other things – the longer commute, the increased working hours, or even just the same old daily grind (work, chores, meals, social relationships), that typically occupy your daily thoughts – and suddenly you've adapted and that extra 15% is basically forgotten.

What does this mean for your desire to create a better life? Be careful when making life-altering decisions. Sure you can get a bigger house in another city, but if it means a longer commute, is it really worth it? Are you actually going to be happy moving to another state if it means leaving behind your family? What would your daily life look like if you quit your job and moved to Hawaii for a year? Thinking about leaving your current relationship? Make sure you are taking everything into account and not just focusing on one particular aspect of your relationship or fantasizing about some better partner who might not actually exist. We focus on the big changes and forget about the smaller—often more important—details of everyday life.

Here are a few suggestions for getting past the focusing illusion before you make a big decision:

  1. Try looking backwards to see whether prior big changes made the impact you hoped they would. What changes have you made in your life that did not have the intended effect? And what changes have you made that actually did have a significant and long-lasting impact?
  2. Try keeping a diary for a week to track your daily happiness and the best and worst events of your day. What actually matters for your emotional well-being? What brings you joy on a daily basis? If commuting is the worst part of your day, perhaps moving farther away to have a bigger house is not such a great plan (and focusing on how small your house is now will erroneously make a bigger house seem like the answer to all your troubles).
  3. If you are planning on a move to somewhere new, identify what you really like about where you live now and don’t just focus on some big, exciting change that may not end up being a good fit for your lifestyle. For example, I sometimes dream about living in an old rambling farmhouse on a beautiful country road, but one of the best aspects about my current living situation is that I can walk or bike almost everywhere. I hate having to get into the car and drive—which doesn’t bode well for country living!    

These suggestions apply to other big decisions too, such as changing jobs or beginning or ending a relationship. Use the information you gain by looking backwards or tracking your current daily happiness to guide your decisions rather than focusing on one particular aspect of your job or your partner and thinking that changing that one aspect will be the solution to achieving happiness.

All of this isn’t to say that it’s not worth pursuing something new, but it’s worth taking the time to make sure you are looking at the whole picture rather than just focusing on what stand out as the best parts of the transition and ignoring the rest.

References

Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9(5), 340-346.

Kahneman, D., Krueger, A. B., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A. (2006). Would you be happier if you were richer? A focusing illusion. Science, 312(5782), 1908-1910.

Donnelly, G. E., Zheng, T., Haisley, E., & Norton, M. I. (2018). The Amount and Source of Millionaires’ Wealth (Moderately) Predict Their Happiness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167217744766.

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