As soon as I woke up, I knew something was wrong. I did not feel well. I was getting sick, though I was not sure how I knew that.
I was in Mexico City, my first trip abroad since I got the green card. I came to Mexico to see a volcano as some website that sold tours promised I would. The volcano trip was supposed to be a highlight of the trip.
I went on the journey and felt worse. After returning to the hostel, I asked for a doctor. The doctor told me “salmonella”. He said something else in Spanish, but the meaning of those words has sunk into translational obscurity. No hablo Espanol.
I felt like shit the rest of the day; I had bouts of diathermia and vomiting. Sometimes (impressively) simultaneously. A feat I did not know my body was capable of achieving. I spent the rest of my trip taking antibiotics and trying to bring the fever down.
My trip lasted 6 days, 4 of which were full of pleasant experiences. I saw local churches. Teotihuacán was beautiful.
Yet, when I recall my adventure, all I remember is salmonella and how miserable I felt. I am convinced if I went there again, I’d be unhappy. I realize it is an irrational thought, but that’s how I feel.
This is an example of focalism, which is a cognitive bias. The bias occurs when we focus on some elements of an event and ignore everything else.
It is one of the reasons we are so bad at predicting how we will feel in the future. The official term for this tendency is affective forecasting. However, I prefer the term miswanting; it communicates better.
Miswanting refers to the fact that people sometimes make mistakes about how much they will like something in the future.
The bias has wide-ranging implications because wanting is predicting. And if we are bad at predicting, we are bad at wanting.
If we cannot figure out what will make us happier tomorrow, how can we make the right decision today?
What do you think is missing from your life right now? What will make you happy? Is it more money? Professional success? An attractive spouse?
Questions such as “What will make you happy?” are inherently difficult to answer. That’s because there is not a standard definition of happiness. It is a feeling, often fleeting at that. Moreover, your happiness/satisfaction is a product of many factors.
To answer the happiness question, you should:
- Figure out what factors are important to your happiness (I’m sure there are more than one)
- Figure out the weights you should assign to each factor
- Assess your current level of each factor
- Sum them weighted factors to estimate your current happiness score
- Figure out the ideal (max-happiness) levels for each factor
- Sum them up to get the ideal score
- Compare the ideal happiness score with the current happiness score to see what factors you must change to be happier
Who’s going to do all that? And where is the guarantee that the factors/weights you choose would be correct?
When people face difficult decisions, they substitute the complex questions with the simple ones. The replacement is often arbitrary. It can be primed (i.e. triggered by) by earlier questions/experiences.
Why does this happen?
The cognitive psychology has a theory, which Kahneman summarizes in his book: “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” We evolved with two systems that we deploy to make decisions: System 1 and system 2. System 1 is intuitive, quick, and effortless. System 2 is effortful, slower, and less efficient.
System 2 requires a lot of resources and effort. If you go through the (1-7) steps I described earlier, you will be employing system 2.
However, most of us are lazy. So we avoid using system 2. Instead, we rely on system 1. And system 1 does not do averages. It replaces difficult questions with ones that have obvious (one factor) answers. Then we focus on the factor and overstate its importance.
So, if you think that you are unhappy because your dating life sucks, then the obvious answer to long-lasting happiness (furnished by System 1) is in finding a spouse. If money primed you, then getting a higher-paying job would make you happy. You act on it… and you end up disappointed.
Why? Because your happiness is a function of many things and you have changed only one of them.
Consider an example. Say you live in Detroit. One miserable February morning, you decide that you would be happier in a warmer place. So, you accept a job in sunny Los Angeles and move there shortly after.
Initially, you are ecstatic. You don’t have to shovel snow anymore. The Pacific looks better than Lake St. Clair. However, as time passes, you get used to the nice weather. It is warm all the time.
Also, you discover many things in California make you unhappy. Overpriced housing market. Endless traffic. High taxes. Lack of friends and family.
In short, you realize that weather is not the only thing that makes you happy. There were many factors you took for granted before and you have only just realized it now.
It is a like a Hollywood cliché, where a protagonist spends all his time chasing something. As soon as he gets, he realizes that’s not what he wants.
The bias works opposite ways, too. Research shows that people often overestimate the impact of negative events. For example, respondents in surveys think that having a disability would permanently affect their happiness levels. They focus on one aspect of well-being and fail to consider other dimensions of happiness. The reality is disabled people are as happy as anyone else.
Focalism is one reason people choose to stay in dead-end jobs or remain in loveless marriages. They focus on the possibility of being unemployed or feeling the pain of divorce. Yet, as anyone who went through a breakup or lost a loved one will tell you, eventually, you will feel better.
So, here’s one thing you can do to be happier. Do not miswant. To show that I am serious about my own advice I am going to book a trip to Mexico City… One day.