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February 11, 2012 / Jake Seliger

On what makes people happy, from Daniel Kahneman:

Our poor intuitions about the pursuit of happiness are a genuine paradox. Daniel Kahneman summarizes decades of happiness research this way: “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

(Emphasis in original.)

[. . .] it’s not just survey data that confirms the horror of rush hour. A few years ago, the Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer outlined a human bias they called “the commuting paradox.” They found that, when people are choosing where to live, they consistently underestimated the pain of a long commute. As a result, they mistakenly believed that the McMansion in the suburbs, with its extra bedroom and sprawling lawn, will make them happier, even though it might force them to drive an additional forty-five minutes to work. It turns out, though, that traffic is torture, and the big house isn’t worth it.

Both quotes come from “Does Money Make You Unhappy?” (hat tip Penelope Trunk). Strangely, Jonah Lehrer doesn’t mention Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, until the very end. Since reading Stumbling on Happiness, I’ve been pointing out these points from it to various people in various contexts:

  • making more than about $40,000 / year does little to improve happiness (this should probably be greater in, say, New York, but the main point about the diminishing returns of additional income for most people remains)
  • most people value friends, family, and social connections more than additional money above around $40K/year
  • your sex life probably matters more than your job, and many people mis-optimize in this area
  • making your work meaningful is important, although this means different things to different people

I consciously think about this book when making my own life choices, and this is also the kind of valuable insight that seemingly never gets taught in schools.

I have some theories about why so many people screw this up, but they aren’t well-developed enough to write about. Yet.

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