How to make someone feel fantastic (or awful) about their entire life:


I’ve posted a lot about how we underestimate the power of context and how we are terrible about remembering what really makes us happy.

Some people regard these ideas with skepticism.

Here’s a great example of how both work, and how, if you’re so inclined, you can make a friend feel fantastic or an enemy feel awful about their entire life. (Big hat tip to io9.)

In his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman tells the story of a study where they asked students two questions:

  • How happy are you these days?
  • How many dates did you have last month?

They wanted to see if the answer to the first would have any effect on the answer to the other.

Nope. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

But what about when they reversed the order?

  • How many dates did you have last month?
  • How happy are you these days?

Oh boy.

Via Thinking, Fast and Slow:

In this sequence, the correlation between the number of dates and reported happiness was about as high as correlations between psychological measures can get. 


What the hell happened?

Emotional context is huge.

People have a big emotional reaction to thinking about their fantastic (or awful) dating life and the brain can’t help but carry this emotion over to a subsequent question.

Via Thinking, Fast and Slow:

The students who had many dates were reminded of a happy aspect of their life, while those who had none were reminded of loneliness and rejection. The emotion aroused by the dating question was still on everyone’s mind when the query about general happiness came up…

“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 they were with their love life. They substituted the question to which they had a readymade answer for the question they were asked.

And it’s not just questions about dating.

Via Thinking, Fast and Slow:

The same pattern is found if a question about the students’ relations with their parents or about their finances immediately precedes the question about general happiness. In both cases, satisfaction in the particular domain dominates happiness reports. Any emotionally significant question that alters a person’s mood will have the same effect. 

This will be fun to test.

  • When friends inform me of good things that have recently happened to them, I’m going to ask them how they feel about their lives.
  • Also, I’m going to be very careful going forward about when I decide to ponder the big questions in life. (Note to self: All deep philosophical inquiry shall now take place after a large meal, surrounded by friends and laughter, while mildly inebriated.)
  • And if someone tells me they just got a parking ticket and I reply, “So how happy are you these days?”, it’s safe to assume this person owes me money.

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