By Bruce Lacey
When planning the future, we usually think about what will make us happy. What would it feel like to be with Bob, not Tom, live in Manhattan, not Anchorage, become a teacher, not an actuary? We meditate on these questions. Then we make our decisions.
However, according to Harvard psychologists, Daniel Gilbert’s delightfully readable book Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage, 2007), that caters to the funny bone as well as the inquiring mind, not only are we often wrong about what will make us happy, we get it wrong systematically. Just as certain optical illusions systematically deceive our eyes, so certain “illusions of foresight” systematically deceive us when we try to imagine our future, and especially our future feelings. Moreover, while we are generally aware of and adjust for tricks of the eye (even though things far away look small, we know they are not really small), we are generally not aware of and consequently do not adjust for the tricks of foresight. Basically, our capacity to imagine the future is a rather new evolutionary product and still has a few bugs.
So what are these illusions? Here is a sample:
Filling In and Leaving Out. When we imagine a future event our imagination automatically fills in some of the details and leaves out others. How much we expect to like the event depends on which selections are thus (unconsciously) made. So when people think moving to California would make them happy they often imagine the balmy climate but omit things like traffic, cable rates, and housing costs. When deciding between vacation destinations, people tend to think of positive attributes – e.g. spectacular views – but ignore negative ones. On the other hand, when deciding which of a pair of vacation reservations to cancel, they tend to think of negative attributes – e.g. no night life – but ignore positive ones. What’s hard is imagining positive and negative at once.
Projecting the Present. We can not help projecting the present into the future. This is partly because when we imagine how something will look or feel in the future, we use the same part of our brain we use for actual seeing and feeling. So our imagined sights and feelings get preempted by actual sights and feelings. This means that, as Gilbert puts it, “Teenagers get tattoos because they are confident that DEATH ROCKS will always be an appealing motto. New mothers abandon promising law careers because they are confident that being home with their children will always be a rewarding job. And smokers who have just finished a cigarette are confident for at least five minutes that they can easily quit.”
Forgetting that You Change Too. Nature has endowed each of us with what Gilbert calls a “psychological immune system,” which allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation (often by comforting rationalization). However, when we anticipate the future we do not take account of it. Being stood up at the altar seems like it would be devastating, but people have a natural resilience that will have them saying in no time, “It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” Another example: We tend to prefer “keeping our options open,” but in fact, “we are more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we’re stuck with than the things we’re not.”
It’s Not What You Do. Studies have shown that people regret not having done things more than they regret things they did. The psychological immune system “can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice”.
Wrong Theories about Ourselves. Certain false beliefs about happiness proliferate because they make for stable societies. Contrary to apparent popular belief, an increase in wealth increases happiness only when it lifts people out of abject poverty. Likewise, most studies show that parents do not recover their pre-parenting level of happiness until the kids leave home but the contrary beliefs abound.
A Key to Happiness? In the Foreword, Gilbert declares that the book “is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy”. However, that is not quite true. Near the end of the book we learn that “there is a simple method by which anyone can make strikingly accurate predictions about how they will feel in the future.” The secret: Do not imagine your future; simply ask someone who is currently experiencing the very thing you are contemplating. This is one method the research unequivocally supports, but the research also shows that people tend to reject this advice. The reason: Each of us has a built-in belief we are unique – “other people are not me” — so we doubt that we will feel the same as someone else in the same situation. The surprising conclusion: We will probably continue to stumble, but if we can better appreciate how much we have in common with each other, we might stumble on happiness a bit more often.