clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Want to be happy? Don’t follow your gut.

A data scientist on what truly makes us happy.

An illustration of a person resting on a rectangular shape tilted at an angle. They are looking down into a space filled with color and binary code. Christina Animashaun/Vox; Getty Images

Should you trust your gut?

This is a question I’m constantly asking myself, though it’s usually on a subconscious level. I think this is true for most of us. We’re making all kinds of decisions every day. Most of them are trivial, like what to cook for dinner. Some of them are monumental, like whether to change jobs or sell your house.

But every time we make these decisions, we make them on the basis of some feeling or evidence. Sometimes we just go with our intuition, with what feels right. And sometimes we lean on our reason. We weigh the options, consider all the factors, and follow the logic wherever it leads.

A new book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, called Don’t Trust Your Gut, argues that our “gut” — or whatever you want to call it — is usually wrong. And it’s wrong because our intuitions are often influenced by false impressions or dubious conventional wisdom.

Stephens-Davidowitz is an economist and a former Google data scientist. This book, like his last one, Everybody Lies, isn’t preachy. He’s not telling people what to value or what’s worth wanting. He just looks at the enormous amount of data we now have about virtually everything and tells you what it says, and how it squares with what we think we know.

So I invited him to join an episode of Vox Conversations to talk about it. We dive into some of the surprising evidence he’s gathered, from what makes us happy to what makes a good parent to what predicts a lasting marriage. If nothing else, there’s enough here to make everyone think twice before going with that gut feeling.

Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Sean Illing

What do you mean when you say we can’t trust our gut?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, I just think it’s more that we should be aware of the data as we go through our day-to-day lives. Say you’re opening up a business. Let’s say you’ve seen a movie about a successful record store back when those were a big deal. And you say, “That seems fun. I’m gonna try a record store.”

You should know the data that of every business in the United States, the record stores have the lowest average life span. The average record store lasts 2.75 years. The average dentist business lasts 19.5 years. Now that has to be information that you consult when you’re making a major decision like that.

And I think most of us don’t.

Sean Illing

Do you see any constructive role for intuition at all? Or do you think our gut, whatever you want to call it, is always or almost always leading us astray?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I’d say it could have a small role.

There have been these studies that show if you do something in a controlled environment, many times, then your intuition is able to sense things that it would be impossible to otherwise sense, such as a firefighter who can sense that there’s a fire even before it reaches conscious awareness or is visible.

So I think there are times where our gut can be useful. But I think our gut is massively overrated.

Sean Illing

I’ve had this ongoing argument with my wife, who’s very much a data person. I’m not an anti-data person, but I come from the philosophy world and my view of science and data has always been that it can help us get more of what we want, but it can’t really help us decide what’s worth wanting.

And so I’m just very naturally skeptical of anything or anyone that suggests that we can quantify the good life, or something like that. I’m not sure that’s something you’re saying here, but is that something you believe that the data can do?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I was a philosophy major myself, so we have that in common. I always feel like if our lives are inefficient enough, you can make decisions that win on every possible dimension.

So I talk about the data on happiness, and particularly the Mappiness Project, by George MacKerron and Susana Mourato, where they asked people on their iPhones: Who are you with? What are you doing? And how happy are you, 0 to 100? And they built this chart, a happiness activity chart.

And they found all these things like, socializing, being with friends: really, really important. Being with your romantic partner: really, really important. Many of us think that we’re gonna have a good time if we just lie on our couch and browse the internet, or go on social media or play an iPhone game. And the data, when you actually ask people doing that, they tend to say they’re not particularly happy doing that.

Sean Illing

What, in general, are the activities that make us happy, and what are the activities that don’t?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

So the happiest activity, according to Mappiness — and actually every experience sampling project has landed on the same exact finding — is that sex and intimacy and making love are the happiest activity, which is not so surprising.

Other ones near the top are going to a museum or an exhibition. That kind of shocked me.

Sean Illing

That is surprising, yeah.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Gardening ranks really high. Theater, dance shows, sports, running, exercise, singing, performing — so karaoke, really good — talking, chatting, socializing, bird-watching, nature-watching, walking, hiking, hunting, and fishing.

Sean Illing

You know, another interesting thing about a lot of those activities near the top is that they don’t require a lot of money. A lot of them you can do for free. You just have to make time to do them.

Which I guess prompts the question: Did you find that having more money makes us happier? Do you find that happiness tends to scale with income? Or is that relationship complicated?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

There’s this famous idea that once you get above $75,000 in income, there’s no gain to money. That is kind of a famous idea: You just need at least $75,000 income, then it stops.

Matthew Killingsworth at UPenn did a study. He found that’s not true, that there’s no point at which money stops giving people happiness. But it levels off. So it’s always going up, but it’s going up at a smaller and smaller rate.

So going from $40,000 to $80,000 of income gives you the same happiness boost as going from $80,000 to $160,000 of income, which gives you the same happiness boost of going from $160,000 to $320,000 of income. So basically you have to keep on doubling your income to get the same happiness boost.

There’s another study by four professors, most of them at the Harvard Business School, that found that there’s an additional boost if your net worth gets above $8 million. And I think one of the reasons for that is, if you think of the activities that are really at the bottom of the happiness activity chart, there are these annoying things that modern life forces us to do. And once your net worth gets to $8 million, you really can stop doing them. So you just have a chef cooking your meals and you have a housekeeper who’s cleaning up after everything. And maybe you have a personal assistant who’s doing all your chores, and you have a personal driver, so you’re not commuting on a subway.

So I think there is a point at which you really can stop doing these annoying things that make us all miserable.

Sean Illing

What’s the work trap? I mean, obviously work is related to money and a lot of us, most of us, if you’re right, are doing jobs we don’t enjoy because we’re trying to make the most money that we can possibly make. What’s the trap there?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Well, the trap is that work is the second most miserable activity according to [scholars Alex Bryson] and MacKerron, which shocked me because I had grown up with this idea that work is where you get a lot of your fulfillment and joy and purpose.

But of course there’s a question: What do you do with this information? You can’t just not work in modern society.

Now, of course, you can cut back on your work. And I think you do have to question whether you’re putting too much time into your work life.

My read of the literature is: the number one factor that increases your happiness while you’re working is liking the people you’re working with. It just blows everything out of the water. So that’s what you want to be thinking about, more than how much money am I gonna make. If you don’t like the people, no matter what you’re doing, you’re kind of screwed.

Sean Illing

You have a chapter in there about parenting and kids. What did you find that makes a good parent? What did the data tell us about how to parent better?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

So the interesting thing about parenting is that there have been all these studies of identical twins, adoption studies where you have kids from the same parents raised by different families. And overall, they converge on this idea that parents just matter a lot less than we think they do.

Many of us suspect that if we do the right thing with our kids, we’re gonna give them an amazing life. And if we do the wrong thing with our kids, they’re gonna have a terrible life. And I think the data suggests that’s just not the case at all, that the effects of parents are pretty small.

What has a surprisingly large effect is genetics, which a lot of people don’t like talking about. But when you talk about a kid’s income as an adult, genetics play two to three times a bigger role than parents do.

And the thing that’s striking about that is, parents worry about so many things. There’s one study that found the average parent faces 1,700 difficult decisions in the first year of a kid’s life and many, many more decisions after that. And if a parent’s facing 30,000 decisions over the course of a kid’s life, even if they make all the right decisions, their kid may be 20 percent better off. It suggests each decision really doesn’t matter that much. The average decision they’re sweating about on a Tuesday evening, that they’re having a panic attack about, is probably not something to really worry about.

Sean Illing

What did you discover about what makes or what predicts a happy marriage?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

The best study on this, I believe, is the Samantha Joel study with 11,000 couples. And they use machine learning models to predict what variables correlate with how happy you say you are in your romantic relationship.

The number one surprising thing in the study is that it’s really, really hard to predict marital happiness.

I talked to Paul Eastwick, the second author on that study. And he said that he’s moving toward an idea that relationships may be chaotic systems. So if they get a little off track, they just keep getting off track. And if they’re on a good track, they stay on that track, or even get better over time. But a slight change in initial conditions will lead to vastly different outcomes.

A happy couple is more likely to be happy in the future. An unhappy couple is more likely to be unhappy in the future. Everything else adds zero predictive power to changes in relationships. Which has big implications for how we decide whether to stay or go in a relationship.

Sean Illing

Do we tend to overrate attractiveness, sexual taste, or finding someone who shares our values or our hobbies or whatever, just similarity to oneself, I guess? Those are, I would say, pretty conventional traits that people look for. Does the data tell us that those things are overvalued a little bit?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Yeah, those traits tend to have basically no correlation with how happy you are with your partner, even though they are the things we look for.

The thing that predicts happiness — by far the most important predictor of whether you’re happy in your romantic relationship — is whether you’re happy outside your relationship.

Your own happiness really matters for how happy you are in a relationship, and then your partner’s psychological traits do tend to up the odds, at least a little bit, of you being happy.

Sean Illing

I would say that the most depressing finding in the book is probably also the least surprising, which is that basically being good-looking is the most predictable determinant of success in almost every sphere of life. Is it really that simple?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

It was very depressing. Alexander Todorov has done studies where he’s shown people just pictures of candidates in elections — Senate races, House races, gubernatorial races. And he asked them, who looks more competent? And whichever one people on average say looks more competent wins about 70 percent of the races.

Sean Illing

I guess in the end I kind of come back to the final paragraph in your book, which I love. And I’m just gonna read it. You say, “The data-driven answer to life is as follows: be with your love on an 80-degree and sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water, having sex.”

To the extent that I sounded a skeptical note, part of what I was getting at is, I just feel like human beings are just sort of hopelessly contradictory. You know, like if every day was a perfect day, then pretty soon the things that made it perfect would cease to satisfy us. Right? You know, the sweet is only sweet because of the sour, and all that.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

I agree with that.

One of the things I took from the Mappiness Project was that modern life is kind of tricking us in many ways. Spending most of our time on social media, the leisure activity that gives us the least happiness; spending 60, 70 hours working at jobs we don’t like with people we don’t like; not spending enough time in nature, taking a hike with friends by a lake, spending a day with your romantic partner, not worrying about anything else — anybody who listens to this podcast, reads my book, probably would be happier if they spent at least a little more time doing these simple things that data suggests make people happy.

That’s all I’m saying, not that you have to just have sex on the beach all day, every day, the rest of your life.


Vox podcasts tackle the Israel-Hamas war

The Gray Area

What our brain chemistry says about free will


How to catch a scientific fraud

View all stories in Podcasts