Tag Archives: Weather

Why the weather doesn’t make you happy

“If only I lived in a warmer place, I would be so much happier”

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about happiness that I encounter is that weather and climate strongly influence happiness. It is a persistent beliefs, and even in the view of evidence, I typically fail to persuade people of the opposite. Let me put it out there, loud and clear: no, moving to a place with better weather will not make you happier.

Why is this – admittedly, counterintuitive – statement true?

Two phenomena explain why. The first one: focus illusion.

Focus illusion

‘Focus illusion’ is the phenomenon that when people evaluate two alternative scenarios – say, living in Northern and in Southern Europe – they only focus on one element. Amsterdam is grey and rainy, while Barcelona is sunny and warm, hence life in Barcelona must be better.

But life is made up from a lot more than the weather. A day in Amsterdam doesn’t only involve a rainy bike ride to the office. It may also include a long meeting with clients, a backlog of work emails to clear, catching some friends for a few drinks, and watching an episode of your favourite series before falling asleep. A day in Barcelona may start with a commute by bus through morning traffic, and then elapse in exactly the same way as one in Amsterdam. That massively reduces the impact of weather!

A famous study by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and co-author David Schkade backs up the ‘focus illusion’. For their study – nicely titled ‘Does living in California make people happy’ – they asked students in the US Midwest (Michigan and Ohio) and in Southern California to evaluate either their own life satisfaction, or the life satisfaction of a student in the other region.

Both Californians and Midwesterners predicted Californians to be happier, and students’ ratings suggested that the better climate would contribute to higher happiness levels. However, there were no discernable difference in both the happiness levels found and the contribution of climate to those happiness levels.

As Kahneman and Schkade phrase the focus illusion they found: “Easily observed and distinctive differences between locations are given more weight in such judgments than they will have in reality.” Overall, academic research indicates that other factors – primarily,  social relations, work and financial situation, and health, have a lot larger influence on happiness.


But now say you’re a person who is a lot more sensitive to the weather than the average person. Say that you are meteopathic, sensitive to temperatures, or suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD, also known as winter depression). Even in those cases, moving to a place with a more suitable climate may result in a bit more comfort, it may not meaningfully affect your longer-term quality of life.

‘Adaptation’ is the reason why. When something changes in our life – say, we get a new car – it is amazing in the beginning. The first few rides are wonderful. But over time, the novelty wears off. And after a few months, a great new car is not a source of satisfaction anymore.

This adaptation affect is very strong, and it is one of the reasons why we always ‘need’ more material goods and experiences, running the ‘hedonic treadmill’. A seminal study by Brickman et al., a classic in social psychology, shows how strong the effect can be. The scholars study small groups of paralyzed accident victims, lottery winners, as well as a control group. As time passed, both lottery winners and people getting paralyzed in an accident adapted to their changing situation and returned to their previous level of happiness.

By extension: if you move from Amsterdam to Barcelona or from the Midwest to California, you’ll benefit in the first three months or so, but afterwards it won’t make a difference anymore. No, warmer weather really won’t make you any happier.

Illustration by Maroussia Klep, earlier published by Ionic magazine and For A State of Happiness

Illustration by Maroussia Klep, earlier published by Ionic magazine and For A State of Happiness

Costa Rica: the secret of ‘pura vida’

For some time, I believed Bhtuan was the happiest country on earth. A close relation to nature, a gentle Buddhist philosophy and to top it off: the cradle of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan probably is quite a happy place (and my dream is to travel there). But reading more about national happiness levels, I discovered more and more about another positive outlier: Costa Rica.

Costa Rica ranks twelfth in the World Happiness Report list of happiest countries, dominated by Western countries. It even tops the list of the Happy Planet Index, an index that doesn’t only measures happiness, but also adds environmental performance in the equation.

Why is Costa Rica, despite its relative poverty, such a happy country? When I asked Google, I got several different answers: the lack of an army, healthy food, a slow pace of life. As I wanted to validate these points in a scientifically completely invalid survey, I also asked some Costa Rican friends of friends and people who lived there for their comments.

“General speaking I  believe that Costa Ricans are quite positive in their live, even though they suffer from corruption, unemployment, injustice and crime. Why are we still so positive? Honestly I don’t know. Maybe we are born with this mindset.” – R.


Is this mindset to Costa Ricans, or is it of a factor that holds true for all Latin Americans? The case is made that a manana manana attitude prevalent in Latin America leads to higher happiness levels. Indeed, the figures of the World Happiness suggest that there is a ‘Latin American bonus’ in happiness levels. When taking values about more objectives indicators associated with happiness (wealth and comfort, social support, freedom, generosity), happiness levels in Latin American countries are about 0,5 (on a scale to 10) higher than one would expect on basis of the data. Butnature, weather and food also count:

“Close contact with the nature and the very very nice weather help to be happy. Latin culture and in particular the tendency not to be worry is another important point. They are simple people and they enjoy the life with simple things.” – C.
“We eat healthy food: a variety of fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, eggs, milk, bread, good coffee, not too much meat and artificial deserts, etc.. Yes, nature is generous…” – F.

The lack of an army could also be a factor in it (though Costa Rican policemen are heavily armed), in an indirect way:

“Since we don’t have army (we are pacifist), all the money of the State is distributed in education (schools, high schools and universities), health (hospitals, social security), and ecology (beaches, forests, tourism). In my opinion, these three elements are very important to have a ‘quality of life’.” – F.

But one of the key factors, apparently, is what Costa Ricans call ‘Pura Vida’ – a generally positive concept that can mean anything, from hello to thank you and that can be used in happy situations, and even in sad ones.
“We have a tendency not to worry…I would even go as far as to say, a tendency not to care. Maybe it’s related to the fact that since we have never known conflict or difficult times as a country, it means we have never really learned to fight for things that are important to us. For example, most people are unhappy with our government and political parties, but no one does anything about it, indeed 35% of the population did not even vote last election.” – M.
“The Pura vida phrase does influence the way to see our lives. Pura vida is something cultural- we say this phrases a lot during the day. It has different meanings , but all of then positive.” – R.
“Pura Vida to me means to take life carefree: you can fix all problems. If you can’t fix it, don’t worry: life still goes on.” – C.
pura-vidaThere certainly are a couple of factors that make it a lot easier to be happy than miserable in Costa Rica: wonderful nature – and a close relation to it, good food. Of course paradise on earth does not exist, not even in Costa Rica. But the basic quality of life is quite good, and the Latin bonus gives another boost. A pura vida philosophy – ready to every situation – does the rest. A pure life: what else do we need?