Forecasting Happiness

March 17, 2017

“How often is it the case, that, when impossibilities have come to pass, and dreams have condensed their misty substance into tangible realities, we find ourselves calm amid circumstances which it would have been a delirium of joy to anticipate!” (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1846 in Wilson & Gilbert, 2003)

Most people have a list of wishes: things that they think will bring them to the doorstep of happiness once they have them finally in their grasp. Happiness lists are easy to conjure. However, the mechanism behind them is somewhat complicated, since it involves what psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls the greatest achievement of the human brain – the ability to imagine (Gilbert, 2009).

To imagine what will bring joy to our future selves requires mental time travel, which is a uniquely human skill accrued from two million years of evolution (Gilbert, 2009). We use this skill daily, predicting our future emotions (affective forecasting) and then basing decisions both big (e.g., whom to marry) and small (e.g., what cake to serve at the wedding) on our forecasts of how they will make our future selves feel.

Yet, our imaginations often fail us. When we are lucky enough to get what we wished for, we discover that it doesn’t come with everlasting happiness. And when the things we dreaded come to pass, we realize that they didn’t crush us after all.

In dozens of studies with his long-time collaborator, Professor Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, Gilbert has shown that we can mispredict emotional consequences of positive events, such as receiving gifts or winning football games, as much as negative events, such as breaking up or losing an election (Gilbert & Ebert, 2002). This impact bias – overestimation of the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to future events – is significant, because the prediction of the duration of our future emotions is what often shapes our decisions. Including those concerning our happiness.

One of the reasons for these mispredictions stems from underestimating the power of our psychological immune systems. Just as our immune systems work tirelessly to keep our bodies in good health, our psychological immune systems routinely deploy an entire arsenal of cognitive mechanisms in order to deal with life’s habitual onslaught of less-than-pleasant circumstances.

While our immune systems are impressive enough, our psychological immune system has an impressive feature of its own: the ability to synthesize happiness. Hence, when life disappoints, we “ignore, augment, transform, and rearrange” (Gilbert et al., 1998, p. 619) information through a variety of creative tactics (e.g., ego defense, rationalization, self-enhancement, dissonance reduction, self-affirmation) until the harsh edges of negative affect have been dutifully dulled (“He wasn’t right for me, anyway. Good that we broke up a week before the wedding.”). When we fail to recognize this ability of our psychological immune systems to manufacture happiness (i.e., immune neglect), we are likely to make errors in our affective forecasting.

Daniel Gilbert has been researching affective forecasting for decades. His bestselling book Stumbling on Happiness, his popular TED talks, and countless writings have shed light on our lifelong odyssey to happiness, as well as the surprises that inevitably tag along. Happiness, Gilbert points out, is a fast moving target. As passionate as we are about finding it, we routinely misforecast what will make us happy, how long our joy will last, and how intense it will be.

But as long as our traveling companions include our sometimes stumbling imaginations and our wish lists full of things, people, and events that we hope will guide us to happiness, it’s worth keeping Gilbert’s words in mind (2000, p. 699): “…in a world of many mysteries, some of the most significant miracles are those we perform ourselves.”

Here are eight questions on happiness for Professor Gilbert.

1. What is one of the most surprising discoveries you have made about happiness in your research?

I continue to be surprised by how quickly people are able to find happiness in circumstances that they were certain would preclude it before those circumstances actually befell them. We are so much more adaptable than we realize.

2. What is the biggest misconception that people have about happiness?

Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit. We may learn how to visit it more often and how to stay longer, but the waxing and waning of happiness is natural and inevitable. The waning does not mean we are doing something wrong.

3. What is synthetic happiness and how does it differ from natural happiness?

Natural happiness is what we feel when we get what we always wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we feel when we suddenly realize that we always wanted what we got.

4. How can we become better at affective forecasting?

Our research suggests that the best way to make an affective forecast is not to use your imagination, but your eyes. Pay attention to the experiences of others. Instead of trying to predict how happy you will be in a particular future, look at those who are already in the future that you are merely contemplating and ask how happy they are. If something makes others happy it will likely make you happy as well.

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