Dating does not equal happiness

I came across this gem yesterday in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist’s insight into dating comes at a particularly timely point in the year.

Here, Kahneman is giving an example of substitution, our tendency to answer difficult questions by substituting easier ones in its place:

“A survey of German students is one of the best examples of substitution. The survey that the young participants completed included the following two questions:

How happy are you these days?

How many dates did you have last month?

The experimenters were interested in the correlation between the two answers. Would the students who reported many dates say that they were happier than those with fewer dates? Surprisingly, no: the correlation between the answers was about zero. Evidently, dating was not what came first to the students’ minds when they were asked to assess their happiness. Another group of students saw the same two questions, but in reverse order:

How many dates did you have last month?

How happy are you these days?

The results this time were completely different. 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 happened?

The explanation is straightforward, and it is a good example of substitution. Dating was apparently not the center of these students’ life (in the first survey, happiness and dating were uncorrelated), but when they were asked to think about their romantic life, they certainly had an emotional reaction. 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.”

If you’re scrolling through Instagram, looking at all the happy couples, you’re likely to believe the lie that you’re unhappy.

Unless you intend to stop using social media, it’s best to notice the lie.

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