Set Yourself Up For Happiness

Or, how to mentally prepare for future bumps in the road, so you’re not miserable in the present.

Jean finally receives the news she has been waiting for. However, she’s immediately disappointed – if she accepts her new promotion, she must move farther north, where the winters are long and frigid. She was hoping her promotion would allow her to stay in a warm climate. Jean can’t imagine being happy in such harsh weather. After much deliberation, Jean decides that she will not accept the promotion.

Set Yourself Up For Happiness

We all know that our decisions today will impact our happiness in the future. If this is true, what influences our daily decision-making? The answer is our predictions of our future happiness. In the above scenario, Jean decides to not accept her job promotion because she predicts that she won’t enjoy her life in a place with such cold weather. But how will Jean ever know if she made the right decision? What if this promotion would have led to an upper management position? What if she would have acclimated to the harsh weather after just a year or two? Each day we make decisions based on how happy we expect to feel in the future. Let’s take a closer look at how we make such happiness predictions.

QUIZ: How Happy Do You Feel?

It may surprise you to learn that, like Jean, people are not very good at knowing how happy they will feel in future situations. Indeed, many scientific studies suggest that people overestimate how unhappy they will feel if something bad happens1. For example, one study asked participants to predict how unhappy they would feel two months after the end of a romantic relationship. When that time arrived, the study results showed that people had predicted that they would be less happy than they actually were. In another study, women overestimated how unhappy they would be after receiving unwanted results from a pregnancy test. When a negative event occurs, we often end up feeling less upset than we originally expected. Why does this happen? The difficulty is that our happiness predictions are biased. Awareness of these biases allows us to make better decisions on important matters such as our choice of romantic partners, where to live, and how we pursue happiness.

Imagine that you are dreading an upcoming visit from your in-laws. It’s easy to focus exclusively on how unhappy you will feel because of this visit. But what about other things that will happen during that time? Perhaps you will get a kind e-mail from an old friend or your child will bring home an excellent report card from school. The impact of a future negative event will depend on whatever other events occur at that time. Before jumping to conclusions, remember that an unfortunate circumstance may be accompanied by unexpected fortune. You won’t know until the day unfolds, so stay optimistic! Anxiety about the future does nothing but guarantee you suffering in the present.

COLUMN: How to Stop the Negative Mind Clutter

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1. Wilson, T. D. & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 131-134. 2. Nisbet, E. K. & Zelenski, J. M. (2011). Underestimating nearby nature: Affective forecasting errors obscure the happy path to sustainability. Psychological Science, DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418527.

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