Forecasting Future Happiness

crystal ballIn Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert asserts that choices we make today carry an expectation of benefitting our future selves. After all, we’d like to set up our older incarnations for happiness. In fact, researchers tell us that we spend on average 12% of our waking hours thinking about the future. But are we really any good at anticipating our future tastes, preferences, needs, and desires?

Gilbert’s answer: NO. He uses neuroscience to make the case that we consistently misremember the past, misperceive the present, and misimagine the future. In short, we’re not terribly well connected to reality, and our crystal balls are hazy at best.

We don’t store memories as if they’re live action films with every shot recorded. If we did, we’d need really huge brains! Rather, each stored memory engram captures a few critical threads and small sets of key features. Upon retrieving the memory, our brains quickly “reweave the fabric” to give the illusion of an accurate record and fill in the details under the radar. Our recall of emotional states tends to be weighted heavily toward our sensibilities during the closing moments and theories about how we must have felt. And memories change ever so slightly every time they are retrieved and then stored again.

This bit of “brain magic” applies in the present, too. We fill in gaps in our visual fields in places where our optic nerves would otherwise leave a blind spot. And what we see gets colored by what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe. We interpret the world as much as experience it. Thus, two people witnessing the same scene can have quite different accounts of what happened.

We make the same cognitive error when imagining the future. When a friend invites us to a party, we fill in the gaps on all of the information that isn’t provided – what it will be like, how we’ll feel when there, what the energy in the space might be. And the further our imaginations stretch into the future, the fewer details we’ll register.

We have a very strong bias toward the present. It colors our remembered past and thoroughly infuses our imagined futures. For instance, we can’t feel good about an imaginary future while feeling lousy about a present circumstance. And even when the present is relatively rosy, we’re just not adept at walking in our future selves’ shoes:

  • We pay more attention to favorable information, surround ourselves with folks who provide it, and accept it uncritically. This filtered input does not provide a realistic view of the past, present, or future.
  • The comparisons we make now (and which influence our choices) may not matter to us in the future. We fail to acknowledge that we’ll think differently as we age an accumulate life experience.
  • We don’t forecast our hungers accurately – for food, emotional support, social connection, intellectual stimulation, or sex. We really can’t imagine how we’ll feel.
  • Negative events don’t affect us as badly (or for as long) as we think. Our psychological immune system mitigates against unhappiness by helping us find silver linings and effective action. It also helps us craft narratives that diminish emotional pain.
  • When considering the past to foretell the future, we remember the best of times and the worst of times… but not the most likely of times. Unusual events come to mind easily, so we tend to think that they’re more common than they really are.

So, if we’re not very good at predicting our futures, to whom or what should we turn to for our “crystal balls”? Gilbert suggests that we talk to people who are currently living in the state that we might imagine for our futures. Studies have shown that such “surrogates” provide a far better indicator of our future emotional well-being than the portraits our imaginations paint. Unfortunately, few of us act on that advice as we consider our experiences and vantage points to be so distinct from everyone else as to render such feedback useless. But the truth of the matter is that we’d profit from their insights.

One other piece of sound advice… When weighing the choice between action and inaction, lean toward action. Nine out of 10 folks regret not have done things more than the things they did. Moreover, our psychological immune system has an easier time rationalizing an excess of courage than a surge of cowardice.