Research reveals ‘deep asymmetry’ in life satisfaction recall


A newly-published large-scale study has described how people tend to overstate the improvement in their wellbeing over time, and to understate their past happiness.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, was led by Dr Alberto Prati of the Wellbeing Research Centre, University of Oxford, alongside Professor Claudia Senik (Sorbonne, Paris School of Economics).

The pair analysed data from more than 60,000 adults across the UK, USA, France and Germany spanning from the 1970s to present day. They used these longitudinal surveys to compare how a person’s perception of their wellbeing changes over time.

While the precise questions asked differed by country, in all four studies individuals were asked to rate their life satisfaction on a numeric scale, and for their rating of their past life satisfaction.

Their findings show what the researchers describe as a ‘deep asymmetry’, where happy people tend to recall the evolution of their life to be better than it was, and unhappy ones tend to exaggerate their life’s negative evolution. This suggests that people’s remembered wellbeing is actually much more dynamic than previously stated, and seems to be influenced by their current level of life satisfaction.

And the findings bolster existing research which shows happy people to be more optimistic1, perceive risks to be lower2 and are more open to new experiences3 compared to their unhappier counterparts.

Dr Alberto Prati, Research Fellow at Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and Assistant Professor at University College London, said: “Answering the question ‘how satisfied are you with your life?’ is an act of memory.

“Therefore, if we want to understand life satisfaction, we need to understand how people reconstruct their life narrative and recall their past happiness. There is much more to do for this, and Claudia and I are already working on the next steps.”

Feeling Good Is Feeling Better’ is published in Psychological Science.

  1. Foster, G., Frijters, P., & Johnston, D. W. (2012). The triumph of hope over disappointment: A note on the utility value of good health expectations. Journal of Economic Psychology, 33(1), 206–214.
  2. Johnson, E. J., & Tversky, A. (1983). Affect, generalization, and the perception of risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45(1), 20–31.
  3. Furnham, A., & Petrides, K. (2003). Trait emotional intelligence and happiness. Social Behavior and Personality, 31(8), 815–823