Evaluating Happiness

If you ask college students how many dates they have had in the last month and then ask them how happy they are overall, you will find that those who had more dates will rate themselves as generally more happy than those who had fewer dates. However, if you ask college students how happy they are overall, and then after they evaluate their happiness ask them how many dates they have had, you won’t see a big difference in overall happiness based on the number of dates that students had in the last month.


Daniel Kahneman looks at the results of studies like this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow and draws the following conclusion. “The explanation is straightforward, and it is a good example of substitution,” he writes. Happiness these days is not a natural or an easy assessment. A good answer requires a fair amount of thinking. However, the students who had just been asked about their dating did not need to think hard because they already had in their mind an answer to a related question: how happy were they with their love life?


This example is interesting because we are often placed in situations where we have to make a quick assessment of a large and complex state of being. When we buy a new car or house we rarely have a chance to live with the car or house for six months to determine if we really like it and if it is actually a good fit for us. We have a test drive or two, a couple walk-throughs, and then we are asked to make an assessment of whether we would like to own the the thing and whether it would be a good fit for our lives. We face the same challenges with voting for president, choosing a college or major, hiring a new employee/taking a new job, or buying a mattress. Evaluating happiness and predicting happiness is complex and difficult, and often without noticing it, we switch the question to something that is easier for us to answer. We narrow down our overall assessment to a few factors that are more easy to evaluate and hold in our head. More dates last month means I’m more happy.


“The present state of mind looms very large when people evaluate their happiness,” writes Kahneman.


We often judge the president based on the economy in the last months or weeks leading up to an election. We may chose to buy a home or car based on how friendly our agent or salesperson was and whether they did a good job of making us feel smart. Simple factors that might influence our mood in the moment can alter our perceived level of happiness and have direct outcomes in the decisions we make. We rarely pause to think about how happy we are on an overall level, and if we do, it is hard to untangle the things that are influencing our current mood from our perception of our general life happiness. It is important to recognize how much the current moment can shape our overall happiness so that we can pause and adjust our behaviors and attitudes to better reflect our reality. Having a minor inconvenience should not throw off our entire mood and outlook on life. Similarly, if we are in positions we dislike and find unbearable, we should not put up with the status quo just because someone flatters us but makes no real changes to improve our situation. Ultimately, it is important for us to be able to recognize what is happening in our minds and to be able to recognize when our minds are likely to be influenced by small and rather meaningless things.

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