Did you know?

Click any word in a definition or example to find the entry for that word


noun [uncountable]

wanting something that you mistakenly believe will make you happy


verb [intransitive/transitive]
noun [countable]



'Would a 20 percent raise or winning the lottery result in a contented life? You may predict it will, but almost surely it won't turn out that way. And a new plasma television? … Worse, Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure. He calls this "miswanting".

Jon Gertner, New York Times 7th September 2003

'A group of US psychologists suggests (convincingly) that our brains are wired to "miswant" – that is, to overestimate the effects that imminent decisions will have on our emotional states. A new car won't really make us happy; a break-up won't really be unbearable.'

www.mediajunk.com 11th September 2003

The festive season is upon us and we're all avidly thinking about what we need to acquire to make the dreams of our children, family members and friends come true, as well as wondering if anyone has responded to our own 'Christmas list'! Of course, we all love to give and receive gifts and delight in the happy faces of the recipients, even if our motives are partly fuelled by the commercialism of Christmas. We should be warned, however, that with such a materialistic focus, we may be victims of a newly identified concept in psychology: miswanting.

typical examples of miswants are things like a new
car or home cinema system

Miswanting describes the situation of mistakenly believing that getting a particular thing will make you happy. For instance, winning the lottery is a classic example of something that a lot of people desire, but many of those who have actually won it don't always find the happiness they had anticipated. Those who want to win the lottery are therefore in a state of miswanting.

A verbal derivative miswant has been coined, with a corresponding participle adjective miswanted. There is also some evidence for a countable noun homograph miswant. Typical examples of miswants are things like a new car or home cinema system which, although they might be exciting initially, soon become the norm. Psychologists argue that we very quickly incorporate such things into the backdrop of our lives, and when they become ordinary, we lose pleasure from them.

So if Santa is on a tight budget this year or doesn't seem to respond to your Christmas wishes, don't despair, at least you can be spared a few miswants!

Background – miswanting

The concept of miswanting originates with two US psychologists, Daniel Gilbert, professor of Psychology at Harvard, and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, who first used the term in the title of an article: 'Miswanting: Some problems in the forecasting of future affective states' (In J. Forgas (ed.), Thinking and Feeling: The Role of Affect in Social Cognition, Cambridge University Press, 2000).

The term subsequently gained more widespread recognition from September 2003 when it featured in an article in the New York Times entitled 'The Futile Pursuit of Happiness' (John Gertner, 7th September 2003).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 19th December 2003.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

add a word


A must for anyone with an interest in the changing face of language. The Macmillan Dictionary blog explores English as it is spoken around the world today.

global English and language change from our blog