As human beings we spend a lot of time predicting what will make us happy in the future. For some of us it’s the family vacation we’ve always dreamed of, for others it’s the new car we’ve had our eyes on for years, and others it’s finally paying off the mortgage on their home.
Dan Gilbert makes the argument that we are particularly bad at this task, for three main reasons.
First, our imaginations don’t give us and accurate preview of what our emotional futures will be because our brains fill in and leave out important details about the future.
Second, we naturally project our current feelings into a future that will not necessarily exist.
Third, we forget that things will look differently once they happen in the future.
The antidote, Gilbert suggests, is something that most of us will ignore. Let’s explore why we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy and uncover the secret to doing it right.
Why we think about the future: Prospection
Here’s a remarkable fact: human beings are the only creatures on earth that think about the future. This is something that Gilbert calls nexting.
The first type of nexting is a survival mechanism and happens immediately and unconsciously. For instance, if you’ve ever been walking on a trail and heard the sound of a rattlesnake, your first instinct will be to move away from the sound as fast as you possibly can. These instincts are built deep into your caveman brain.
The other type of nexting is more about long range planning, like thinking about where you want to retire, or what you’ll eat for lunch next week at that restaurant you’ve always wanted to go to. This type of nexting occurs in our frontal lobes and allows us to think about the future before it happens. There are a few reasons we do this:
- It’s pleasurable: by thinking about something you’ll enjoy in the future, you get to experience it twice – first in your imagination, and then in real life.
- To protect ourselves: we anticipate negative events so that we can minimise their impact or eliminate them entirely.
- To exercise control: we have a fundamental desire to control our own destiny and thinking about and planning our future allows us to fill that need.
Which is all fine and dandy, except for the part that we are not very good at it. Which leads us to make choices that work against our ultimate happiness.
Shortcoming #1 – Realism: Filling In and Leaving Out
The first shortcoming of our imagination in predicting what will make us happy is that we fill in the details inaccurately, and leave out details that are relevant to how happy we’ll actually be.
There have been plenty of scientific studies that show that our memories are not reliable representations of what actually happened in the past.
Instead of storing perfect records of past events like, say, a video recording, our brains store snippets of past events in different parts of our brain and then, when we want to recall a memory, our brain finds those fragments and reconstructs them to build the memory.
Whatever isn’t actually there gets filled in by the imagination and there’s the rub – sometimes the things that our imagination uses to fill in the gaps didn’t actually happen. Then the brain restores that memory back with the newly fabricated information. Which is why you can get 100 different versions of an event from 100 different people at that event.
This fabrication, Gilbert points out, happens so quickly and effortlessly that we no idea what’s happening – we just believe that whatever we just pulled up in our minds is an accurate representation of the event.
Now, let’s think about our future predictions. How happy will you be next week if your best friend asks you to go to a party with them?
As your imagination gets to work trying to answer this for you, some interesting things happen. If you are like most people, you start to fill in details about the party – where it will be, who will be there, what food and drink there will be and you’ll use those details to start making predictions about how happy you’ll be.
The problem is that your imagination went through this entire process of filling in details before you even know what they were and you start to make choices based on your (probably inaccurate) predictions.
The thing to understand here is that your brain does the exact same thing when you are thinking about more important things in your life, like what job you should take and where you should live.
Just as we fail to consider how much our imagination fills in when we are thinking about the future, we also fail to consider how much it leaves out.
For instance, when most people are asked how they would feel two years after the sudden death of their eldest child, they suggest that they would be totally devastated, wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning and would perhaps consider committing suicide.
As Gilbert points out, nobody who gets asked this question ever considers the other things that would happen in those following two years – attending another child’s play, making love with their spouse or reading a book while taking in a spectacular sunset.
This is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that our imagination almost never captures the entire story.
Shortcoming #2 – Presentism: Projecting the Present onto the Future
This shortcoming is a bit easier to explain. Basically, our imaginations are not as imaginative as we believe them to be.
Basically, we tend to fill in holes in the future with data from the present. We anticipate that whatever is going on right now is what will be going on in the future.
For instance, once you’ve stuffed your belly full at a holiday meal, you have a hard time imagining that you’ll ever be hungry again. We fail to see that our future selves will view the world any differently than we view it now.
Or when scientists are asked to make predictions about the future, they almost always err by predicting that the future will be too much like the present. Respected scientists are on record as saying that human beings would never experience space travel, television sets, microwave ovens, heart transplants and nuclear power.
The tendency to project the present into the future ensures that we have a really hard time imaging a future where we will think, want or feel differently than we do now.
One of the more interesting findings from the entire book is that how we think we’ll feel in the future is determined quite heavily by how we feel right now, even if what’s happening right now has nothing to do with what will happen in the future. For instance, when you are having one of those days where everything seems to go wrong, you’ll be much less likely to predict being happy about the get together you have planned with your friends the following week.
Without realising it, how you are feeling in the moment has a huge bearing on how you’ll be able to predict your future happiness and, to top it off, you have no idea that it’s happening.
Shortcoming #3 – Rationalization: Things look differently after they happen
Rationalisation is defined as “the act of causing something to be or to seem reasonable.”
We all have a psychological immune system that protects us against all sorts of emotional upsets. Like all of the other mechanisms we’ve been describing up until this point, it operates without us realising it’s there.
The end result is that we, as Gilbert describes, “cook the facts.” Here’s a quick description of a study Gilbert did in order to explain.
A set of experiment subjects were invited to a fake job interview that they thought was real. In the pre-interview, they were (in the middle of a bunch of other questions) asked how they would feel on a scale from 1-10 if they didn’t get the job. When they didn’t get the job (because that was the whole point of the experiment), they didn’t feel quite as bad as they thought they would. In fact, after a short period of time they were just as happy as when the went in to the interview.
Basically, the finding of all of these studies is that our psychological immune system kicks in to protect us from negative experiences, with three caveats.
First, the negative event needs to reach a certain pain threshold. For instance, it will kick in when you are being rejected at a job interview, but not as much if you stub your toe.
Second, it will only kick in once it’s clear that we can’t change the experience. For example, people experience an increase in happiness when genetic tests show that they don’t have a dangerous genetic defect (as expected) or when the tests reveal that they do have one, but not if the results are inconclusive.
Third, we have a much easier time rationalising actions that we have taken rather than inaction.
The end result is that we fail to realise our ability to generate a positive view of our current circumstances and thus forget that we’ll do the same in the future. Ultimately leading us to not accurately predict how happy we’ll be in the future.
The Solution: Asking Others Experiencing It Right Now
As Gilbert points out, most of what we know is not based on our own direct experience, but on second hand knowledge. You’ll find this to be true if you make a list of all the things you know and go line by line marking it firsthand or secondhand.
We believe and put our faith in many things that we have learned secondhand, but when it comes to deciding what will make us happy, we stubbornly rely on our “nexting” mechanism in almost every case. As we’ve already learned, that strategy doesn’t lead to good outcomes. We forget how good or bad things were in the past because of our selective and unstable memories and then we project those memories into the future to make inaccurate predictions on how we’ll feel then.
This is the point in the summary where we discuss the advice that Gilbert suggests we’ll most likely not take.
By far the most accurate way to determine whether or not a certain future state will make you happy is to ask somebody who is experiencing it right now.
Do you want to know what it will be like to move to a foreign country and leave your family and friends behind? Ask somebody who just did it. Want to find out how you’ll feel about it 10 years from now? Ask somebody who moved 10 years ago.
As Gilbert says, the human race is like a living library of information about what it feels like to do just about anything that can be done. All you need to do is ask.
There are studies that show that when people are forced to use surrogates to determine how happy they will be about a specific imagined future, they make very accurate predictions about their future feelings.
So why do we reject the solution? Because we don’t like to think of ourselves like the average person. Maybe other people are bad at predicting their future happiness, but not me. As you might have guessed, that’s what EVERYBODY says. So while you are busy rejecting the solution because you are unique, you are merely confirming that you are exactly like everybody else.
The biggest mistake we make, Gilbert suggests, is that we don’t make very good predictions about how happy accumulating more “stuff” will make us.
There is a mountain of evidence that beyond a certain level of wealth, it makes little to no difference in the level of happiness you experience. Yet we keep striving for more.
The problem is that the entire market economy system depends on people continually buying and producing more and more stuff. As Gilbert points out, if everyone was content with the amount of stuff they had, the economy would grind to a halt.
So, the next time you find yourself about the pull the trigger on that big splurge purchase, consider finding somebody who did the same and ask them how much happiness it added to their life beyond the initial jolt of excitement.
You might be surprised at the results.
Hope you enjoyed this summary 🙂
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