Feeling Good Is Feeling Better
Alberto Prati and Claudia Senik
Can people remember their past happiness? We analyzed data from four longitudinal surveys from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany spanning from the 1970s until the present, in which more than 60,000 adults were asked questions about their current and past life satisfaction. We uncovered systematic biases in recalled happiness: On average, people tended to overstate the improvement in their well-being over time and to understate their past happiness. But this aggregate figure hides a deep asymmetry: Whereas happy people recall the evolution of their life to be better than it was, unhappy ones tend to exaggerate their life’s negative evolution. It thus seems that feeling happy today implies feeling better than yesterday. This recall structure has implications for motivated memory and learning and could explain why happy people are more optimistic, perceive risks to be lower, and are more open to new experiences.