As shallow as it may be, most of us probably have the sneaking suspicion that we would be happier if we had more attractive facial features and a lither, more athletic body. We fork out cash on cosmetics, gym memberships and plastic surgery thanks to this belief, after all. But are we falling prey to a well-known psychological illusion?
While previous research suggests our looks do influence our lives – from what we earn to how happy we are – a new paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies shows that we probably have an exaggerated view of these benefits.
The paper was inspired by previous examples of the “focusing illusion” – the idea that when we are forced to think about one aspect of our lives, it tends to dominate our feelings and assumes a disproportionate importance in that moment.
In one early example, Fritz Strack at the University of Mannheim and his colleagues asked participants about their love life and their general happiness. The results turned out to depend on the ordering of the questions: if the participants were asked about their love life first, there was a fairly strong correlation between the number of romantic dates they’d had and their wellbeing. But if the question about happiness came first, the apparent connection between romance and wellbeing vanished.
The same turns out to be true for wealth and health: when we are primed to think about these attributes, their impact on our immediate happiness is temporarily intensified. The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman summarises these results as “nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it”.
We live in a media culture that tells us being good looking is a virtual prerequisite for a happy life, but it would make sense that the true importance of our physical attractiveness, like other attributes, is subject to the focussing illusion. To test this idea, Lukasz Kaczmarek and colleagues at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland set up a simple experiment asking 97 students to take two questionnaires measuring their life satisfaction (they rated their agreement with statements such as “the conditions of my life are excellent”) and "body satisfaction" (this involved rating whether they were pleased or not with various aspects of their appearance, including their face, physical build and body parts). Crucially, as in the previous research on the focussing illusion, the ordering of the questionnaires was randomised – half the participants started by rating their faces and bodies, the other half began by rating their life in general.
The results were exactly as expected: people with more confidence in their looks tended to be somewhat happier than those who thought they were less beautiful (body satisfaction explained about 19 per cent of the variation in life satisfaction overall) but only if they took the body satisfaction survey first, not second. Otherwise, the link between body satisfaction and life satisfaction was very weak – in other words, the results suggest that, generally speaking, people pleased with their appearance are barely any happier than those who are not. It seems it is only when reminded to think about our appearance that our body satisfaction is relevant to our happiness, just as the focussing illusion predicts.
Admittedly, the experiment involved a relatively small sample, and it would be premature to conclude that the benefits of beauty are purely illusory: multiple studies (recently reviewed by Tonya Frevert and Lisa Slattery Walker) have found that more beautiful people are given better grades at school, earn more money and tend to be perceived as kinder and more intelligent – the so-called “what is beautiful is good effect”. All of which should contribute at least a little to overall life satisfaction. Given that these differences may snowball as people progress in their careers, the students tested in the current study may have been too young to have benefited from (or borne the brunt of) these subtle, yet significant, prejudices that come with the way we look. This makes me wonder whether the focussing illusion for appearance would be as strong among a more diverse range of participants.
Even so, this new research leaves us with plenty of food for thought. For psychologists studying wellbeing, it is yet more evidence that they need to pay attention to the order in which they ask their questions. As Kaczmarek and his colleagues point out, a study that measures life satisfaction first should eliminate the focussing illusion while helping to identify the factors with more concrete, enduring effects.
For the rest of us, the results might encourage a re-think on our pursuit of beauty – and its cost. There’s nothing unhealthy about taking pride in the way we look, but it’s clear that no amount of expensive cosmetics is going to buy you perfect happiness. So before you consider dishing out yet more money while striving for physical perfection, you might certainly consider whether it’s something that will really make a difference to your life – or are you just chasing a mirage?
Kaczmarek, L., Enko, J., Awdziejczyk, M., Hoffmann, N., Białobrzeska, N., Mielniczuk, P., & Dombrowski, S. (2014). Would You Be Happier If You Looked Better? A Focusing Illusion Journal of Happiness Studies, 17 (1), 357-365 DOI: 10.1007/s10902-014-9598-0
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Post written by David Robson (@d_a_robson) for the BPS Research Digest. David is BBC Future’s feature writer.
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