Can we remember the old times correctly? Or does the past look different in retrospect? Alberto Prati of University College London and Claudia Seneck of the Sorbonne in Paris sought the answer in longitudinal studies from the USA, France, Great Britain and Germany. They discovered systemic distortions of memory in tens of thousands of datasets: “People can remember how they felt, but the memory is mixed with what they are feeling today,” Pratty and Seneca report in “psychology«.
The two economists first evaluated data from 11,000 adults who participated in the Socio-Economic Commission, a regular dataset in Germany, between 2006 and 2016. In it, they always provided information about their current life satisfaction. Last time, they were asked to choose one of nine lines they felt best reflected how their life satisfaction had evolved over the past 10 years.
On average for all respondents, past happiness was somewhat underestimated. Those who are fortunate today tend to choose a steadily ascending line, a moderately ascending line, and the less fortunate a descending line. The lucky ones overestimated the increase in well-being and believed that they were more unhappy earlier than they really were. On the other hand, the less fortunate said they were happier and overestimated the downward trend.
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