Why We Don’t Choose What Makes Us Happy

Photo courtesy of Sophie Schwarzenberger

Why We Don’t Choose What Makes Us Happy

Why We Don’t Choose What Makes Us Happy

Pursuing a state of happiness can feel like a Sisyphean task, even—or especially—when we eventually achieve the things that we thought would make us happy (a higher income, professional success, having more close relationships, and buying nicer things)…and find that they don’t. But what does research say influences our happiness most? And why are we so bad at choosing what makes us happy?

We’ve reviewed the most interesting studies to find the answers, starting with: The pursuit of happiness itself may actually make us less happy.


For eighty years, the Harvard Study of Adult Development gathered data on people as they aged to better understand what makes us happy. The key finding? The most important determinant of a person’s happiness is their close relationships.

In 2018, researchers studying life satisfaction found something similar. The investigators, from the University of Leipzig, asked more than 1,000 German citizens how satisfied they were with their lives and then asked what they could do to ensure they were more satisfied with their lives in the future. Some people reported general ideas, some implied that they would take specific actions, and others identified specific actions related to social engagement, like helping others.

A year later, the participants were again asked to rate their life satisfaction. The data showed that among those who reported specific actions they would take, the people who described social pursuits were significantly more satisfied with their lives a year later. The authors suggest that this could be due to the fact that nonsocial pursuits, such as getting a new job, may take time away from social interactions and other things that bring joy. People may also overestimate how much that new job will make them happy.

The study speaks to the influence that social relationships have on our well-being: If you want to be happier, spend your time connecting with other people.


Does More Money Always Make You Happier?

Nature Human Behaviour (2018)

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people must first ensure their survival (food, water, shelter) and safety (security, employment, health) before they can attend to needs that fuel their personal growth and happiness, such as a sense of connection to others, developing self-esteem, and becoming the highest version of themselves. Money is no doubt needed to meet our basic needs and be secure enough to focus time, energy, and resources on fulfillment and happiness. But is there a point at which more money stops paying dividends toward happiness? A new study by researchers from Purdue University and the University of Virginia adds to the body of research suggesting that happiness may not rise indefinitely with income. The technical term for this cutoff point is “income satiation.”

Using data from the Gallup World Poll, a survey with information from almost 2 million people across 164 countries, the researchers examined three measures of well-being along with household income adjusted for the number of members of the household. The three measures of well-being were experience of positive emotions, experience of negative emotions, and overall life evaluation (how satisfied a person is with their life). They found that globally, income satiation for life evaluation occurred at around $95,000, satiation for positive emotions occurred at $60,000, and satiation for negative emotions occurred at $75,000. Importantly, they found that after an income of $95,000 had been reached, further increases in household income were associated with slight decreases in well-being, suggesting that more money can actually diminish a person’s happiness after a certain point.

When the researchers split the data and analyzed the effect of world regions and educational achievement, they found that people in wealthier regions experienced life evaluation satiation at a higher income than people in poorer regions, and that people with more years of schooling had a higher satiation point for life evaluation than those with less education. Thus, the income level at which happiness is achieved is relative to education level and geographic location. But once a person’s basic needs are met, more money doesn’t necessarily make them happier.


Can You Buy Happiness?

Journal of Consumer Psychology (2015)

Do experiences make us happier than material possessions do? A recent review article says it might depend on what you’re buying.

Psychologists Darwin Guevarra and Ryan Howell reviewed three studies about consumer psychology to determine whether material products (like jewelry), experiential products (a bike or guitar), or life experiences (a vacation or concert) make people happier. All three studies found that people reported greater well-being after purchasing experiential products and life experiences than after purchasing material products. In terms of economic value per dollar spent, the studies all showed that life experiences and experiential products provided similar levels of value and each provided more value than material products.

The third study also examined how purchases satisfied psychological needs: The study found that only experiential products and life experiences provided purchasers with the ability to express their identities, and experiential products allowed purchasers to use their skills and talents more effectively than life experiences or material products. Life experiences also allowed purchasers to relate to others more effectively than experiential products or material products did.

The researchers’ theory is that experiential products—products you can do something with—allow people to better satisfy their psychological needs of autonomy, skill competence, and relatedness to others than material products do, and this in turn increases well-being.


Why Don’t We Chose What Makes Us Happy?

Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2006)

Several psychologists have suggested that people are not very good at choosing what makes them happy. When we make decisions, we base our choices on predictions about future consequences. And behavioral-decision researchers have discovered that several biases influence these predictions and cost us our future happiness.

In a review article published by researchers at the University of Chicago that summarizes existing research on decision-making and happiness, the authors note five systematic biases that influence our choices.

1. Impact bias: We tend to overestimate the impact a decision will have on our future. We overlook the central event, such as getting married, and don’t take into account the number of other factors in our life that will affect our happiness after we are married, like supporting a family financially and tending to children’s needs.

2. Projection bias: People tend to project their current mental and emotional state onto their future selves. The classic example of this is a person who buys too much food when they go grocery shopping hungry. This person is incorrectly predicting their future hunger based on their current hunger.

3. Distinction bias: When people make decisions, they are generally weighing multiple options against one another and paying attention to minor details that make each choice different (like choosing the brightest TV). After the decision is made, the person is less likely to notice those details as there’s nothing else to compare them to. And the person may have missed other important factors that matter more, like whether the TV is easily mounted on their wall or the remote is user-friendly.

4. Memory bias: We base future predictions on our past experiences. But humans are notoriously bad at remembering things. Our memories place the most emphasis on the peak moments and the end of an experience (recency bias) while ignoring the rest of the event’s duration. For example, a person may choose to go on a second date with a person because something exciting happened at dinner or dessert was good, even if they didn’t connect well with the person throughout most of the date.

5. Belief bias: People also make decisions based on theories about what will make them happiest, which may or may not be true in all situations. One example of this is the belief that more options are always better. Gifting someone a free trip to Hawaii will likely make them happy, but if you let them choose between a free trip to Hawaii or a free trip to Paris, they’ll likely be less happy because they’ll compare the reality of the trip they chose to the fantasy of the trip they didn’t choose.

The authors also suggest not only that inaccurate predictions of future experiences lead to the wrong choice but also that failing to act on the prediction does, too. We tend to make impulsive decisions to gain immediate gratification or make choices based on what we believe is rational, rather than what we really want.

So what’s the optimal equation for happy choices, according to psychologists? Making accurate predictions of the consequences of our choices and choosing based on those predictions.

We’ll work on that. (In the meantime, find us pursuing joy instead.)

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.