Moving to California Won’t Make You Happy

December 9, 2012

Are people happier in California?

Almost everywhere I’ve visited, I’ve encountered the belief that people are happier in California. When pressed as to why, the most common explanation is weather.  Since studies have shown that sunlight positively influences mood, perhaps everyone should move to CA – it might make the world a happier place.

Practicality aside, it turns out moving to California probably won’t make someone happier.  The problem lies in the word itself.  According to Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, there are two different ways of looking at well-being: current mood and overall satisfaction.

Mood and satisfaction can even be contradictory. An event or an object can improve your mood but not increase the satisfaction with your life.  For example, buying a new car might lift your spirits for a few weeks but be dampened when the reality of paying the monthly bills sets in.

This is a specific example of what Kahneman calls the “focusing illusion.” We focus on improving our moods at a given moment, significantly overestimating the impact it will have on our future happiness and even ignoring factors which might actually matter.

As Kahneman says in the above video:

Nothing is quite as important as you think it is while you’re thinking about it. So the mere act of thinking about something makes it more important than it’s going to be.

While mood can be improved in the short term, life satisfaction is primarily influenced by goals. A series of experiments showed that people who, at age 18, reported money did not matter to them were happy at age 45 regardless of income level.  However, 18-year olds who said money was very important to them reported being “miserable” unless they had high incomes.

This difference between mood and satisfaction explains why moving to California doesn’t necessarily make people happier.  The warmer climate will likely lift your mood temporarily but the reality of your life eventually sets in. Wherever you go, there you are.