How Good Are We At Predicting What Will Make Us Happy In The Future?

Imagining the future is one of the most consequential tasks we perform in life

Humans are most special because of their ability to imagine. In contrast to all other animals, humans have large frontal lobes whose function is to help us imagine – to act as an "experience simulator". This feature of the brain allows us to experiment things in our minds before we try them out in real-life. To illustrate, if Ben and Jerry's doesn’t offer liver and onion flavored ice cream, it’s because we can imagine what that ice cream would taste like and say "yuck" beforehand.

Imagining how things will feel like in the future is one of the most consequential acts we perform in life. Our ability to project ourselves into the future is a key skill that will help us make the right choices today to maximize our happiness tomorrow. For example, we decide who to marry, whether to have children, where to work, where to retire, etc. based on our current perception of how we would feel if that event occurred.

Visualizing the future involves combining our perception of the present with our memory of the past to make a prediction. However, our brains are subject to a wide range of biases that cause our predictions of the future (and our memories of the past) to be inaccurate. For example, we even "mispredict" how things that we have already experienced will feel when they happen again. The classic example is childbirth, which women often misremember as not being all that bad.

We make three basic errors in predicting our future happiness

The book Stumbling on happiness by Dan Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard, helps us answer the question: Why do people get it wrong when they predict what will make them happy in the future? Gilbert argues that people make three basic mistakes when imagining their future:

The first flaw of the imagined future is a complete lack of realism or accuracy. “When we imagine the future, we often do so in the blind spot of our mind’s eye.” Unconsciously, our mind tends to add and/or remove key details from the imagined scenario. As a result, predictions are based on incorrect models of present and past reality. “Reality" is a fiction generated by our brain. It is simply our interpretation of the world.

The second major shortcoming of the imagined future is that it is biased towards the present. Our imagined futures and memories are often closer to our present reality than to our actual reality. This is because most people project their present feelings and circumstances to predict how they will feel tomorrow and what they will want then. Yet the future often differs from the present in ways that make these projections wrong. The trouble is that people get their present and future feelings all mixed up. For example, we buy too much on an empty stomach because we cannot distinguish between the craving for French fries we have now and the craving we will have tomorrow.

The third and final shortcoming of the imagined future is that imagination fails to realize that things will feel different once they actually happen. Most notably, people develop a “mental immune system” which ensures that bad things won’t feel as bad as imagined. We are remarkably able to create our own happiness – shifting our worldview so that we feel better about the world we are in. “When we cannot change our experience, we look for ways to change our view of the experience.”

Happiness is not always about getting what we want but learning to appreciate what we get

According to Gilbert, happiness is deceptively simple. A happy life is not always about getting what we want, but rather about learning to be satisfied and to appreciate what we get. We don’t have to get what we want to be happy. In other words, what gets us through life is the right amount of self-delusion – adjusting our view of reality to feel better about our present situation, but not so much as to exceed our own credulity. "If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we would be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning," Gilbert writes. "But if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we would be too deluded to find our slippers."

Natural happiness versus synthetic happiness

There are two types of happiness, says Dan Gilbert. Natural happiness and synthetic happiness. According to him, "natural happiness is what we get when we get what we want, and synthetic happiness is what we create when we don't get what we want." Synthetic happiness is just as real and lasting as natural happiness. Having a sense of happiness that is “personal” has more to do with internal factors than external ones.  It eliminates the pressure to always succeed and leads to a happier life. Thinking about happiness in terms of these two metaphors requires practice but is ultimately rewarding.

Final thoughts

The lesson Gilbert wants to leave us with is that: "Both our longings and our worries are, to some degree, overblown, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we constantly seek through our experiences.” That commodity is happiness.

Research shows that, although we have this extraordinary ability to be somehow "immune to reality", we tend to undervalue this capacity. As a result, we underestimate our potential to find happiness in unexpected places, far beyond our imagination.

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