Can iPhones predict your happiness?


Old-school generation iPhone 4s (Image from

Well, it’s here. The iPhone 6. And suddenly, predictably, everyone with an iPhone 5s or lower feels inadequate. Sales for the iPhone 6 are predicted to be greater than iPhone sales ever before. Someone I went to college with posted on Facebook yesterday, “The iPhone 6. A piece of s!%t compared to the iPhone 7.” He posted the same thing when the iPhone 5 came out a few years back. His post is funny precisely because it captures the sentiment of the technological version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” It says that people are looking to the next cool device already.

The iPhone is not the first device or product marketed to have such a reaction on consumers. Other devices in the tech world and the fashion world, in particular, seem to rely on this notion of being up to date and “en vogue,” if you will.

So, Apple is simply capitalizing on a pattern that seems to be part of the human condition and that other companies also capitalize on to, well, make capital. But what is it that makes people so eager to give up the devices or clothes they’re currently using or wearing, most likely something they were perfectly satisfied with, and clamor to get the newest and latest?

It could be something social psychologists call affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is the ability to predict how we will feel in the future. It’s essentially a forecast for our emotions. And we all know how reliable weather forecasts are once they’re more than a few days out. Not surprisingly, people are notoriously bad at predicting how they’ll feel. It’s true for positive and negative emotions. People generally overestimate how angry or upset and how excited or happy they’ll feel when X happens. Psychologists think that this miscalibration happens for a number of reasons (to learn more, check out Dan Gilbert’s and Tim Wilson’s pages), including one explanation that I’d like to focus on: a happiness baseline.

Everyone you know, yourself included, has a baseline happiness level or a set point [1,2]. Sure, it fluctuates occasionally, and there are certainly days when you’re happier than others, but most of the time our happiness level falls around our own particular set point. While this is good news for people who are feeling crappy, it doesn’t bode well for people who attempt to alter their happiness with products.

In other words, people who think that the latest iPhone will make them happier than they’ve ever been might be right…for a few days or weeks. After that, they’re likely to revert back to their baseline and feel the same way they did with the iPhone 5 or their Android phone or even their Blackberry. Well, maybe not the Blackberry. RIP Blackberry phones. But I digress. Most people fail to notice these patterns about themselves. They don’t learn from their mistakes, so even though purchasing the iPhone 5s only temporarily elevated their happiness from when they had the iPhone 4, these same people will likely be just as eager to obtain their very own iPhone 6 for the very same reasons.

Maybe it’s because people are eternal optimists. Maybe it’s because we’re victims of advertising. Or maybe we don’t know ourselves as much as we think we do. So before you upgrade to the newest and latest, check in with yourself and ask why. Remember, money can’t buy happiness.


Posted by Jen


[1] Diener, E., Suh, E.M., Lucas, R.E., & Smith, H.L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 276-302.

[2] Lykken, D. & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7, 186-189.


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