The headline of this article, copied from the headline of a news article at MSN.COM, is a lie. It is 100% false, and MSN.COM should be sued.
It’s an attention-getting lie, and it’s typical of the way media reports scientific findings. It is intended to generate page views on their “news” website. However, I find it despicable because it is utterly and completely wrong. It’s actually filling people’s heads with nonsense.
The actual study tracked people’s mood in relation to different activities through the day by having people share information about their mood and activities over text messages.
Thus, people rated sex as bringing them the most happiness during their self-reported activities over the course of the day.
There are three immediate problems with this:
1) People are notoriously bad at knowing the causes for their feelings. Just because you feel like sex brings you more happiness than children, doesn’t mean that sex actually brings you more happiness than children do. Some people “believe” that eating fat free cookies is good for them, and would gladly tell you this on a survey… but that doesn’t mean that eating fat free cookies is good for them.
2) When people are voluntarily self-reporting on their activities during the day, there is a gigantic selection bias on the types of activities they are likely to report. You may get a warm, soft satisfied sense of contentment watching your children play that never enters you consciousness enough for it to occur to you to send a text about it. By contrast, a big event like sex or partying is something more likely to trigger you to think, “Hey! I should send a text about this!”
3) Finally, there are qualitatively different kinds of happiness. When people think about “happiness” are they thinking about excitement and fun, or contentment and satisfaction? Short-term excitation is one type of happiness, and it is very easy to report on because it comes in a burst and is usually associated with a specific activity. Long term comfort and motivation is a different kind of happiness, and is more likely to come about because of the overall circumstances in your life or a general background state of being (such as having children or believing in God), and therefore there is no discrete trigger to let you know “Hey I should text about this”. That makes this second type of happiness much more difficult to measure through self-report.
The title “Sex and alcohol make you happier than kids and religion” is funny and snarky and a tiny bit anti-establishment, as well as re-affirming what a lot of people want to think. As a result, it makes a good headline. Bravo, MSN.COM.
But it’s wrong. The true title of this article should have been: “People believe that sex and alcohol produce more of the type of short-term excitation that people are motivated to send text messages about than children or religion do.” That would be an accurate title for this experimental result.
The moral of the story: Don’t ever trust media headlines.