In his book, Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think, behavioral economist Paul Dolan talks about the problems of surveys. For example, in a survey that asked how much people liked their cars, those with more expensive vehicles tended to rate their cars more highly. Yet, when the same people were asked to rate their driving experiences, there was no significant difference between owners of expensive and cheaper cars. So when folks are thinking about their cars, they like them. But when they focus on their actual driving experience, which includes many things beside the car itself (traffic, weather, road conditions, the company, etc.), the actual car becomes less of a factor.
People are also terribly bad at predicting how happy or sad an experience or purchase will make them. Why? Because when you ask them about such things, all attention is on that one item. So I might say that a new house would make me a hundred times happier because that’s all I’m focusing on at that moment. But in reality, when I’m in the house, it will rapidly become one of a hundred things I have to attend to in any given day, and its significance will fade. Luckily, the same can be true of bad incidents. People might predict that they could never be happy if they became chronically ill or lost a limb, but that’s because they’re underestimating the impact of other parts of their lives if such a thing did happen.
For me, the message is that I need to monitor my attention. If I’m always focusing on the bad things around me, then I’ll miss the good things. If I’m looking at the times that people let me down, I’ll miss the times they were there for me. I’m not saying that we should be Pollyannas. After all, bad things will happen, and we’ll have to deal with them. But let’s not make them worse by attending so intently on the bad that we can’t see the good.