Focusing Illusion: Would You Be Happier if You Were Filthy Rich?


Germany, late 1990s. Psychologist, and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman asks a group of German students:

  1. How happy are you these days?
  2. How many dates did you have last month?

The results showed no correlation between the students’ happiness and the number of dates.

That was until Kahneman asked another group of students the same questions, but now in reverse order.

  1. How many dates did you have last month?
  2. How happy are you these days?

This time results were completely different. With dating as the anchor question, students with many dates were reminded of their track record and scored higher on happiness, whereas those with few or no dates were reminded of their solitude and scored it lower.

But why did dating influence happiness in the second survey?

The answer is focusing illusion. And what you just encountered shows how it manipulates thoughts.

What is focusing illusion?

Focusing illusion is a cognitive bias where the mind attaches too much importance to one factor instead of looking at all available data points:

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”

Daniel Kahneman

Here’s a common example. Five people compliment your latest work project, but one antagonist throws you a little critique. What are your thoughts for the rest of the day? Right, the one negative comment stays in your mind – much longer than the wide margin of support.

The fortune cookie maxim

Kahneman has famously described focusing illusion as the ‘fortune cookie maxim.’ Focusing illusion is where recent or immediate thoughts lead to misjudgment and possibly erroneous predictions of future outcomes. 

Unfortunately, we all take bites of this erratic, irrational fortune cookie. Once, I prepared a PowerPoint for a quarter review and spent extra hours on neurotic, minor details. I remember thinking to myself: “This extra effort will get noticed!” I also remember not getting any comments on the design after the presentation. Needless to say, focusing illusion had me spend way too much time on something not worth the effort.

There are many examples where we think we focus on the right things while being off the mark. Just take a look at the next section.

Do you know these examples?

Focusing illusion can be rather unharmful (but irrational) when you:

  • Suddenly notice the new car you bought on every street
  • Compare hotels based on a certain feature, like the size of the swimming pool
  • Think of things like, “If only I were thin, I’d be happier.”

However, focusing illusion is toxic when your thoughts are under siege by:

  • The angry customer email, which you want to get out of the way
  • A haunting experience from the past you wish you could do over
  • The overwhelm of an upcoming presentation that terrifies you.

Keep reading if you want to find out how to identify focusing illusion and how to deflate its many downsides.

Would you be happier if you lived somewhere else?

Is your overall life satisfaction a sum of all the parts? It should be, but most likely it’s not. We tend to underestimate most things while zooming in on a few factors that don’t deserve a podium spot.

The weather, for example.

Think about living in Miami. You can almost sense the balmy temperatures, gentle sea breeze, and all the beautiful people at the beach. No wonder it’s called The Magic City! Wouldn’t life be much better if you lived there?

Probably not.

If you take all everyday life activities into consideration – sleeping, commuting, working, paying bills, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc. – these things also apply to Sonny, Tubbs and all the other cool people in Miami. The weather is just a small part of life.

Let’s try another example. Compare the chilly, windy Chicago to the sunny, glamourous California. You know what’s about to come, but California gets the nod, right? Now, what if I ask you to consider the dangers of forest fires and earthquakes? Exactly. Chicago is now gaining in the polls.

Focusing illusion and your dream job

Do you have your dream job? If you are like most people, you are happy about most things in your career but also dissatisfied with a few things. Yes, those stupid things! If only you didn’t have to do those bloody reports each month, your job would be much better, right?

Maybe you decided to try your luck elsewhere and move on to the next LLC or INC. Initially, your expectations and excitement are sky-high, but after the ‘honeymoon’ is over, you find yourself doing the same things you hated from the previous job. Or, maybe you just found a new task you love to hate.

The point is this. Every job has its downsides, so curb your expectations. Just make sure to work with something where the joyful tasks outweigh the bad parts, we all have to do. Think big picture and steer clear of focusing illusion.

Focusing illusion and perfect relationships

Be honest. You have a thing or two you hate about your partner or friends. Did you notice how these few negative things attract much more attention relative to the (fifty-two) things you love? Just remember this: your partner might be having the same unfavorable thoughts about you.

My best tip is this: Don’t be that guy or gal. Be like Oprah, Tom Hanks, Buddha, or whoever you find likable. Practice gratefulness and focus on the parts you love about other people. Learn to forgive the small issues, and don’t focus on other people’s faults. Cause you’re most likely no Oprah or Tom Hanks yourself.

Would winning the lottery make you happier?

People have always chased money. Can the almighty dollar make all your problems go away?

Four thousand millionaires in this study say no.

Sure, possession of money is fantastic. It makes a lot of things in life more comfortable. But the happiness of being a millionaire is more about the satisfaction of making money.

What does this mean? The accomplishment of creating personal wealth is central. You can’t just inherit or marry into money. Neither does the sensation of winning the lottery last very long. A few months after the prize draw, your focus will shift from the happiness of catching the golden pot to the old problems that used to occupy your mind.

Now, you might be thinking, “But what if I got super-rich?” You could just buy yourself out of trouble, right?

Brooke Harrington, a Copenhagen Business School professor, says that although rich people might never have to worry about price tags, they worry about something else: “Do I have as much as the other rich people I’m comparing myself to?”

The billionaire sensation is about bragging rights, not piles of money.  

What if something terrible happened to you?

Think about this for a moment: How long would you be in mourning and disappointed if you were limb and forced into a wheelchair? You might be thinking of answers like “years” or “never.” But this is greatly exaggerated.

We overestimate how much people with disabilities consider their condition, and underestimate how quickly humans adjust to reality, and take things for granted.

See, it’s not about the physical situation itself; it’s all about your worries. You could be the healthiest person on earth, but if you continuously fear getting sick, this is what keeps your attention occupied. When you worry or focus on the wrong things, things might be worse than any setback you could possibly endure.

Can you avoid focusing illusion?

The following is perhaps the main issue with focusing illusion. We live in a default state where threats, problems, and minor things that irritate us are first in mind.

Whatever good, or even great, things we have or experience gets little attention and is taken for granted.

Other times, you solve one of your concerns, and the next problem quickly appears on your radar. This scenario continues in eternity. You will never get to the bottom of the pile.

Can you avoid focusing illusion? No, and you shouldn’t make that a goal. It’s part of being a modern human with a caveman’s mind.

What you can do, however, is limit the harmful effects of focusing illusion – and avoid slipping into the trap every time – by doing these next few things.

5 ways to deal with focusing illusion

1. Stop comparing yourself to others

Entering any arms race will usually lead you to unproductive behavior. Let me explain.

If your colleagues work long hours, you feel obligated to grind it out. You focus on hours instead of productivity. If other people post a lot on social media, you feel like you have to tweet more. You focus on quantity instead of relevance. If more of your friends get a facelift … well, you get the point.

If you compare yourself to others, there are always someone richer, more influential, healthier, more successful, or better looking than you. Don’t chase cars you can’t catch. Find your niche that matters, and make sure to apply your focus to something worthwhile. Compete with yourself, not others.

2. Research more before deciding

If you are about to invest a large amount of money, or a considerable amount of time into a project, always do your due diligence before diving in.

If you’ve fallen in love with a product, look for the 1- and 2-star reviews to get a more balanced view – not just the positive customer reviews that back up your desire (confirmation bias). Or, if you’re hopelessly in love with a hot stock, try to find all the things that contradict the investment’s future success. Beware of shiny objects; you’re not a crow.

3. Focus on what you already have

Is the grass that much greener on the other side? Probably not. But it might seem that way if you are stuck in your thoughts rather than examining what’s out there.

Don’t look at the things you lack; look at what you already have. This way, you can spin your focus in a more positive direction. Otherwise, you might sit and think that you are worse off than you are.

You might want to write a list of all the great things you have to make it more concrete. That way, you can always revisit your list the next time you feel down.

4. Give it time

Remember when you were a kid and counting the days until Christmas? Or daydreaming about going on that dream vacation next summer? Almost every time, the anticipation and hype you build are more riveting than the experience itself. Time diminishes the emotional effect of your thoughts.

It also works this way with negative things. Got an angry email you need to answer? Never respond immediately while your blood is still boiling. Tomorrow is much better when you have cooled off and regained a clear head again.

5. Schedule your decision

What if your mind just can’t let something go? If you feel like you have to decide now, for example, buying something new, try to delay the decision by scheduling a specific date and time. This way, your mind pauses its pursuit for now and accepts that you will deal with this shiny new object later.

Final tip – How to use focusing illusions to your advantage

By now, you probably think that focusing illusion is something you want to avoid. Forget that. Focusing illusion is something you will have to live with. Furthermore, it’s not a bad thing if you use it wisely.

“The mind is everything; what you think, you become.”


Focusing illusion works against you because we naturally make way too much cognitive room for imaginary threats and negative things. For example, horrible news stories or someone’s negative comment about ourselves. And what does this make us become?

Fearful and anxious.

You’ve just read the negative side of focusing illusion, which you need to turn upside down. Concentrate on all the positive things and all your goals whenever you get anxious or register unproductive thoughts that consume your attention.

Here are a few ways. Want to attract more positive thoughts? Then, work on changing your mindset. Or maybe you want to attract wealth? You could give money affirmations a spin.

There are dozens of ways to “trick” your mind to attract something positive and productive. Focus on what you can do, not what is wrong. Focus on what’s working in your life and build on these things.

This way, focusing illusion becomes a tool to experience the greener grass.

By Kristian Magnus

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