Why we’re usually wrong about how we’ll feel in the future.
Will acing an exam truly make you happy? Will the snub of a cute co-worker send you into throes of despair? Maybe not. New research shows that people routinely discount their own personality biases when they envision how happy or sad they will be as a result of changing external circumstances.
Individuals who are naturally pessimistic imagine that they will be far more euphoric as a result of big life events than usually turns out to be the case. Folks who are usually in a great mood underestimate how much happier particular events will make them (which must make for a pleasant surprise later on).
The new study comes from psychological researchers Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liege, Belgium, and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia. To test their hypothesis that both pessimists and optimists tend to incorrectly predict their future happiness, they surveyed a group of college students to determine their base-level personality (from “optimistic” to “neurotic”). The subjects were then asked to imagine how they would feel, on a scale from one to five, if they received a certain grade in a class.
Six weeks later, when grades actually came out, the researchers surveyed the subjects again. They found a wide gap between how the students expected to feel and how they actually felt. But Quoidbach and Dunn did find a close correlation between how the subjects felt earlier and how they felt when they received their grades.
“Results supported our hypothesis that dispositions would shape participants’ actual feelings but would be largely neglected when people made affective forecasts,” they write.
In a second test, participants (Belgian adults) were asked to describe how happy they would be in the event that Barack Obama won the 2008 U.S. presidential election. After the election was called, the researchers again found that the participants’ actual level of happiness reflected how happy they were when they were asked the question, not how happy they expected to be later.
Why are people so bad at predicting their future happiness levels? The problem may be in the brain. Previous studies have shown that the part of the brain responsible for envisioning future states is the same part tasked with remembering situations we’ve already experienced, the episodic memory center. Neurologically, the act of imaging a scenario is a lot like the act of remembering. But we process thoughts and ideas about our own personalities in a different part of the brain, the semantic memory center, which is tasked with learning and analyzing abstract concepts but not remembering specific events.
“For example, an amnesic patient was able to rate his personality in a highly reliable and consistent manner even though he was unable to recollect a single thing he had ever done,” write the researchers. When we envision the future, we use the part of the brain we use to remember the past, not the part that knows our personality the best. This is why our personal-happiness forecasts are so often off the mark.
Quoidbach and Dunn’s research provides further support for Hedonic Adaptation, a 40-year-old theory that says that most people have a baseline level of happiness, whether or not they’re aware of it. So while we may experience blips of joy when we rush out to make a big consumer purchase, or bouts of melancholy when we suffer a setback, eventually we return to a default emotional setting.
Quoidbach and Dunn hope their research will help people take their personality into account when making big decisions or forming expectations. “For example, individuals high in dispositional happiness who are planning their next vacation might not need to waste money and effort finding the perfect location (because they will be happy in the end anyway). By contrast, people with less happy dispositions might be more prone to regret the slightest annoyance, so carefully planning every detail of the trip might be the best strategy for their future well-being,” they write.
In other words, if you want to know how a big event will make you feel in the future, consider how you feel right now and you’ll have your answer.
Source: “Personality Neglect: The Unforeseen Impact of Personal Dispositions on Emotional Life” by Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth W. Dunn, Psychological Science (December 2010), http://www.psychologicalscience.org.
“Why are people so bad at predicting their future happiness levels? The problem may be in the brain.”
“Individuals high in dispositional happiness who are planning their next vacation might not need to waste money and effort finding the perfect location (because they will be happy in the end anyway).”
Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth Dunn
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2011