Kahneman-Krueger Science Article

Haven't read it yet, but I'm seeing it all over. The useful thing about the new study is that it compares life-satisfaction survey answers with Kahneman's day reconstruction method (basically, writing down what you did and how it made you feel at the end of the day. Highlights:

"If people have high income, they think they should be satisfied and reflect that in their answers," Krueger said. "Income, however, matters very little for moment-to-moment experience."


"Despite the weak relationship between income and global life satisfaction or experienced happiness, many people are highly motivated to increase their income," the study said. "In some cases, this focusing illusion may lead to a misallocation of time, from accepting lengthy commutes (which are among the worst moments of the day) to sacrificing time spent socializing (which are among the best moments of the day)."

My take: Not surprising. Life satisfaction judgments are going to reflect widely shared cultural assumptions about happiness. Wealth is part of a widely shared conception of the good life. Or maybe people think they ought to feel better about higher relative position, but this doesn't really enter much into experience. So the self-reported happiness gap between the wealthy and less wealthy will shrink the closer the self-report gets to actual events. By the way, funny how these things are reported. Why not "Good news! The least wealthy are only 12 percent less happy the wealthiest." Dueling political inferences: money doesn't make the rich happy, so it doesn't hurt them if we take their money vs. not having money doesn't make the poor unhappy, so it doesn't help them to give them any. Take your pick.

Kahneman's Benthamism prevents him from reading happiness-motivation splits as anything but "illusion." If you simply assume that people value only happiness intrinsically, and desire other things only for the happiness it brings, then working hard to make money, say, will seem like a kind of mistake if money doesn't maximize happiness. There are a couple alternative interpretations. One is that here we have a revealed preference for something other than happiness. Even if people say they're trying to be happy, talk is cheap. Action shows us what is genuinely valued—not happiness. Or it may be that there is a kind of "illusion" here, but a good illusion. Our system maybe does this: Identify something valuable. Conclude that it will make us happy, which motivates us to go after it. Go after it. Get it. It makes us happy or not. Whether it does is irrelevant to the system.

Now, if that's the way the system works, is it really an illusion, exactly? Compared to what? The way the system doesn't work? Can the fact that we are motivated really be a trick? Maybe. No doubt our Darwinian system "wants" things we don't. Do I really want pretty women? Do I really want the higher status that will help me get pretty women? If the prospect of happiness is a trick to get us to want stuff that Nature needs us to get, are we really sure we really want happiness after all. We find out that it's the basis of the motivating trick, and we still want it? Becuase that's what we're built to want, even if it jerks us around? What if I can't stop wanting misery-making pretty women and also can't stop wanting happiness? Screwed? That's life?

If the at-a-time gap in happiness between rich and poor is smaller than we thought, is the hedonic effect of relative position smaller than we thought?

By the way, this study involves women only. It will be interesting to see whether there are significant male-female differences with the day reconstruction method.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center