Want to be happy? Flip a coin!

If you think back about your life, you will likely find that many of the most important decisions you ever made were based on chance. I never wanted to get married, but when I attended the wedding of a friend, we both sat in the church and wondered: Why don’t we get married? Long story short, I am still married to her and have been much happier for it.

You may find similar “spur of the moment” or “chance” events that have put you on one path or another.

The question that Steven Levitt, author of the fun book Freakonomics and co-creator of a great podcast of the same name, asked himself is if people can be influenced to make important life decisions in one way or another by a clearly random event. 

He used his website to ask for volunteers who were pondering important life decisions, such as whether to quit a job, break up with a partner, or start a business. He also got people who were pondering less important questions, such as whether to get a tattoo, join a gym, or splurge on a specific consumer good.

He then flipped a coin for every participant and let the result of the coin toss decide if this person should change their life or not. Note, that the participants were fully aware that the recommendation was based on the toss of a coin. No deception was in play.

The funny thing is that on average 63% of all participants followed the advice of the coin toss. Let me repeat that: almost two out of three people followed the advice of a coin in taking important life decisions. Of course, by pure chance alone, c. 50% of all people should have ended up making the same decision in life as the coin recommended. But the results of Levitt’s experiment was that people, who were advised by a coin to make a change in their lives, were 26% more likely to make a change afterward.

And to make things even weirder, people who followed the “recommendation” of the coin and made a change in their lives were significantly happier six months afterward than people who did not make a change or did not follow the coin’s advice. And interestingly, people reported almost no change in happiness if the coin advises them on unimportant questions in life, but a significant increase in happiness after the coin advised them on important life questions. 

How much happier? About 0.5 points on a 10-point happiness scale. To put that into perspective, that is about the same change in happiness than what is commonly observed between people who are single and people who are in a relationship, or between people who are isolated in their community and people who are part of a religious community. And it is about the same level of change in happiness people experience after having a child – only with the reverse sign.

Why is this so?

We can only speculate, but if you ask me, then one major driver is that for many important decisions are hard, because they are so consequential. So, we tend to assess them very carefully and for a long time. In these situations, two things tend to happen. First, we become more and more aware of the benefits and risks of a decision. Second, the more we become aware of the pros and cons, the more frozen we get, fearing to make a mistake.

The coin toss helps with both of these effects. Because we are so acutely aware of the pros and cons, it typically takes only a small “nudge” to decide either way. The coin does that for us. But because the coin decided for us, we have an excuse if things go wrong afterward. After all, it wasn’t my decision, it was the coin who made me do it.

Of course, after taking an important life decision, no matter the outcome of the decision, we are happy to have taken the leap and removed the stress of indecision and uncertainty. And that alone makes us happier already.