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Wed November 23, 2011
Dr. Daniel Benjamin, Cornell University - Happiness and Decision Making
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Daniel Benjamin of Cornell University questions the role happiness plays in the decision making process.
Daniel Benjamin is an assistant professor of economics at Cornell University. As a behavioral economist, his research incorporates ideas and methods from psychology into economic analysis. His current work includes a theoretical analysis of how individuals' concern for fairness affects the efficiency of economic exchange, and an empirical investigation of the extent to which people seek to maximize their own happiness.
Dr. Daniel Benjamin - Happiness and Decision Making
Philosophers have long speculated that "happiness" is every person's ultimate goal. It's an obvious idea, but research suggests that when people make important choices, they actually trade off between happiness and other goals.
In a recent study, my colleagues---Ori Heffetz, Miles Kimball, and Alex Rees-Jones---and I surveyed thousands of American adults and college students. We posed hypothetical scenarios, such as a choice between a job that pays $80,000 per year but lets you get a lot of sleep, versus a job that pays $140,000 but leaves you with less sleep. We asked them which option they thought would give them a happier life as a whole (leaving it up to the respondents to define happiness for themselves). Then we asked which option they would choose, and got some surprising results.
In general, people were more likely to choose the higher-income/lower-sleep job even when they didn't think it would make them happier. So if happiness is everyone's goal, what explains this choice? Evidently, people believe that higher income will allow them to achieve other goals they care about, even if achieving those other goals requires sacrificing some personal happiness. [pause] When we asked our survey respondents to predict how the options would affect various aspects of their lives, we found that sometimes people are willing to choose an option that gives them less happiness if they think it will give them a greater sense of purpose, higher social status, a greater sense of control, or a higher level of their family's happiness.
Thus it seems that sometimes, people are willing to sacrifice happiness for other purposes. But those who think happiness is the ultimate goal are not all wrong. Of all the goals we measured, personal happiness was by far the strongest factor in people's choices.