science of happiness

With parts of the United States approaching record snowfall this season, there are probably thousands of people at this very second questioning whether the bad weather is making them miserable. At first glance, it certainly seems like terrible weather should have a significant impact on emotional wellbeing. After all, who wants to freeze their toes off, shovel their car out from under the snow, and be stuck indoors for days on end? But despite these seemingly obvious sources of unhappiness, research on the subject paints a far more hopeful picture. 

When I moved from New York City to California a decade ago, I knew I’d miss a lot of things about living on the east coast. After all, I was leaving behind my family and friends, most of my childhood memories, and my beloved New York Knicks (OK…so maybe that last thing was good to leave behind). But if there was one part of leaving New York that I was most excited about, it was definitely the change in weather. You see, I’m not what you’d call a “winter person.” So when the time came to leave the snow and ice behind and settle in under some palm trees along the beach, it seemed like an easy trade to make. 

While we might expect there to be a link between geography and happiness, particularly during the winter months, this expectation is not supported by the research. In a now-classic study conducted by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague David Schkade, happiness levels were compared among people living either in California or the Midwest. Interestingly, members of both groups expected that the people living in California would be happiest, particularly when they reflected on the climate differences between the two regions. But when they were asked about their own life satisfaction, the results were a bit unexpected: the differences in weather had literally zero impact on a person’s happiness, and the 2 groups rated their lives as equally happy overall. 

Why did the huge geographical and climate differences between the 2 groups make such a miniscule impact on their overall well-being? Kahneman and Schkade hypothesized that the 2 groups fell vulnerable to a cognitive bias known as the “focusing illusion” -- when we place too much weight on one aspect of a situation, at the expense of other perhaps more important factors. In this case, everyone involved in the study focused on one obvious difference between the groups -- the weather -- and assumed that it carried the most weight when it came to happiness.   

Indeed, our lives are filled with activities, relationships, and experiences. The weather is just one aspect to it, and, it appears, a relatively minor one at that. So whether you’re in snowy Boston or sunny California, it may feel like this lengthy winter is depressing you or that endless summer is responsible for your contentment, but for most of us, the weather plays little, if any role in our long-term happiness and well-being.  

In the weeks to come, I’ll be sharing regular updates with you about research-backed tips for sustainable happiness, as well as common roadblocks to happiness that we all struggle with. While many of us consider happiness to be the result of good fortune or circumstance, research is increasingly showing that happiness is best thought of us a practiced state of mind. Through ongoing practice, we can all learn to become happier.  

Jonah Paquette, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, and speaker. He works for Kaiser Permanente in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he provides group and individual psychotherapy, teaches psychoeducational classes to patients, and is the co-Director of Clinical Training for postdoctoral residents. Jonah is the author of “Real Happiness: Proven Paths for Contentment, Peace, and Well-Being,” published in February 2015.