Friday, June 21, 2013


I just read a great 2008 paper on happiness research that somehow I missed.  The basic idea of the paper is to make a distinction between

Economic Decision Making: maximizing wealth from a fixed set of resources
Hedonomic Decision Making: maximizing happiness from a fixed amount of wealth.

They limit the scope of this paper to one kind of happiness: The short term, general positive experience evoked by a particular event or choice.  But a lot of their insight can be applied to other combinations as well. 

They go into a lot of great ideas, based on solid research in the peer-reviewed literature.  The basic purpose is to show how many different ways (and there are a lot of them) that people make choices that do NOT maximize their happiness.  Many of these are similar to the traditional cognitive heuristics that we talk about in economic decision making.  They add a lot as well.

One study they cite was so fascinating I had to share it with you.  The researchers recruited two sets of participants.  One set was asked to predict which of two choices would make them happier, a sad story and a large piece of chocolate or a happy story and a small piece of chocolate.  In general, the participants felt the chocolate was more relevant for happiness than the story, so they went with the large chocolate and sad story. 

The second group was given either the large chocolate and sad story or the small chocolate and the happy story and asked to rate their happiness.  It turns out that the small chocolate happy story combo made them happier.

The reason that they speculate led to this difference is counterintuitive but simple.  Chocolate is something that makes you happy, but the amount of chocolate is only relevant when you have a tangible reference to compare it to.  So when you get a small piece of chocolate, unless you see the larger piece of chocolate you missed out on, it makes you just as happy as if you got the large piece without seeing the small one.  But the story is different.  You can judge how happy or sad a story is without having a comparison.  So there was a real difference in the participants' resulting happiness from the story, even without seeing the alternative they didn't get.  The chocolate provided the same amount of happiness whether it was big or small.  But the happy story provided a significantly greater amount of happiness to the participants than the sad story.

What I like most about the study is that in addition to teaching us something about happiness (more of an item may not make you more happy if you don't have a reference), but it also demonstrates one of my favorite secondary findings - that what people think is true is often not what is really true.  What we think will make us happy isn't what really makes us happy.  Just like user interfaces that we think will be easier to use than another one might not really be easier.  Etc. Etc.

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