– By Michael Tu
I hate Chicago! I can’t wait to move back to Cali. I must have heard my Californian friends senselessly bash Chicago at least 100 times the past 6 years here. They claim they would be significantly happier if they escaped Chicago’s frigid hell (paradox?) and returned to their paradisal motherland. I have always found this line of thought to be quite superficial, the outcome of an insufficiently examined life. If the limitless wonders of California do indeed make you much happier, then Californians must be the happiest people on Earth. Sure. I’m skeptical that the weather is a central determinant of life satisfaction. Far more crucial are factors such as whether you are surrounding yourself with people who and engaging in work that bring you meaning. You can achieve this almost regardless of location.
It turns out that this notion of Californian superiority in life satisfaction has also bothered leading behavioral scientists David Schkade of UCSD and Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University (who also won a Nobel Prize in Economics). They performed a study called “Does Living in California Make People Happy? A Focusing Illusion in Judgments of Life Satisfaction”. While the title makes the study seem silly at first glance, I assure you that it is a legitimate one that has been cited 627 times. The researchers surveyed ~2000 undergraduates from the University of Michigan (UM), Ohio State University (OSU), the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Irvine (UCI) about their own overall level of life satisfaction and their own level of satisfaction with specific factors such as the regional climate. Moreover, the researchers surveyed the students about what they perceive to be the overall life satisfaction of their similar other (someone else similar to themselves) in the Midwest and in California, and their similar other’s level of satisfaction with specific factors such as the regional climate.
The study yielded many interesting results. I will only cover a subset of them:
- The students in the Midwest and in California had a similar level of overall life satisfaction.
- The Californian students were more satisfied with their own climate than students in the Midwest were satisfied with their own climate.
- Both geographical sets of students predicted that their similar other would have a higher level of overall life satisfaction in California than in the Midwest.
- The higher life satisfaction prediction for California occurred because the students believed their similar other would be more satisfied with the climate and cultural opportunities in California.
- Both geographical sets of students placed higher importance on the climate’s effect on well-being for their similar other living in another region than for themselves.
The professors interpreted the results as follows:
- The climate is not an important factor when a person assesses her own overall life satisfaction. That person focuses on more central aspects of life in her evaluation.
- Objectively speaking, there is a difference in hedonic experience between the climate in California and the Midwest’s climate. A person tends to over-focus on the salient Californian “advantage” of climate when imagining his similar other’s life in another region.
- Note: I inserted the apostrophe around ‘advantage.’
- Hence, a focusing illusion occurs that causes the person to exaggerate the impact of climate on his similar other’s overall life satisfaction in another region. He fails to realize that his focus shifts to more central aspects of life when evaluating his own overall life satisfaction.
To be fair, this study has a limitation. UM, UCLA, UCI, and OSU are mostly comprised of local, regional students, so the surveyed Californians probably have lived in California their entire life, and the surveyed Midwesterners most likely have lived in the Midwest their entire life. At most, you can solidly conclude that lifetime Midwesterners and Californians have similar life satisfaction despite California’s salient “advantages.” You cannot definitely say that a person who moves to the Midwest from California will not have lower life satisfaction, ceteris paribus (excluding the climate and cultural opportunities). Conversely, you cannot definitely say that a person who moves to California from the Midwest will not have higher life satisfaction, ceteris paribus (excluding the climate and cultural opportunities).
Yet, in the face of imperfect information, I strongly believe there is beneficial value in assuming that the authors’ conclusion is a close approximation of the truth:
“In the context of life satisfaction, the present discussion suggests that people may not be good judges of the effect of changing circumstances on their own life satisfaction, or on that of others. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.”
If you are a Californian struggling to adapt to life in Chicago, realize that it is wholly possible to achieve a similar level of life satisfaction here that you enjoyed in California. Instead of focusing your energy on trivial elements of life such as the weather, seek and be present to the crucial and wholesome gifts of life: the people around you who bring you meaning and the work that you find meaningful.