Affective forecasting: When is happiness?

Last week, we discussed what happiness looks like in the brain, but noted that, because happiness is subjective, it’s not something we can systematize; we’ll just never be able to name a thing that makes everybody happy.

Before we get to some of the things that make us happy, the when of happiness turns out to be very interesting. You might be smiling now, but what are you happy about? Is it even the thing you think it is? We’ll see.

“If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, we should be happier than we used to be. “An American in 2015,” he continues, “compared with his or her counterpart a half-century earlier, will live nine years longer, have had three more years of education, earn an additional $33,000 a year per family member … and have an additional eight hours a week of leisure” (p. 262).

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra goes back even farther, noting that “in 1919 relatively few people could become disenchanted with liberal modernity because only a tiny minority had enjoyed the opportunity to become enchanted with it in the first place” (p. 26).

In other words, are you bored? Be happy with what you have — a century ago, we didn’t have the luxury of being bored with what we had because we really didn’t have anything, most especially the leisure time to get bored.

For the first time, he writes, “people understand themselves in public life primarily as individuals with rights, desires and interests” (p. 12).

But our happiness doesn’t even relate to our own pasts, never mind those of people we never knew a century or half-century ago — and especially not to the pasts of hypothetical people who were the average of their times.

In fact, no wonder people in the mid-20th century were anxious — two World Wars in 35 years, a stock market collapse, impending Cold War, a third World War with atom bombs seemed inevitable and there were plenty of totalitarianism and fascism in the world, Rollo May wrote in Man’s Search for Himself (p. 19).

Now, we really have to make up things to be worried about, like fighting on Twitter.

“On the deepest level, the question of which age we live in is irrelevant,” May writes. “The basic question is how the individual, in his own awareness of himself and the period he lives in, as able through his decisions to attain inner freedom and to live according to his own inner integrity” (p. 206).

But more on that next time. I want to talk about the future.

Yes, the future.

“The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real,” Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “and it is this ability that allow us to think about the future” (p. 5).

“Forestalling pleasure,” he continues, “is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience” (p. 18).

Gilbert goes on to relate a study involving a fancy dinner. “Thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there,” he writes.

When participants in the study were told they won dinner at a fancy French restaurant and asked when they would like to go, most opted to wait a week. “These people not only go to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Chateau Cheval Blanc ’47, but they also got to look for to all that slurping and sipping for a full seven days beforehand” (p.18).

But be careful with that, though. Jonathan Haidt notes in The Happiness Hypothesis that “we are bad at ‘affective forecasting,’ that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future.”

Win the lottery? Lose control of your limbs? What do you think? “Within a year,” Haidt writes, “lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness” (p. 85).

Crazy, right?

We’re also much better at recalling our feelings, not what got us to those feelings. If we didn’t like the wine or we did like the pie, Gilbert writes, we remember that, not the actual taste or texture of either (Gilbert, pp. 44-45).

Anticipation often gives us deeper feelings than achievement. “Set for yourself any goal you want,” writes Haidt. “Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack and the end of a long hike” (p. 84).

It’s the same with small goals, too. Make a to-do list for your day; include the small things like brushing your teeth and driving to work. See how good it feels to knock items off your list? But what happens when you complete your list? You mark off the last item, toss the list in the recycle bin and wonder what’s next and how you’re going to get a little dopamine hit from hitting completing something else.

And it really is about anticipation. Anticipating unknown pains is scarier than known ones, even if the known ones are more intense, Gilbert writes. Sure, “fear, worry and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives … we motivate ourselves by imagining the unpleasant tomorrows that await us should we decide to go light on the sunscreen and heavy on the eclairs. In short,” he continues, “we sometimes imagine dark futures just to scare our own pants off” (pp. 20-21).

We really do want that control we talked about last week, too. Gilbert points out that we will pay a fortune to people who say they can predict the future (psychics, investment bankers, weather forecasters, etc.) so that we can feel like we have some control over what’s coming (p. 22).

Let’s talk briefly about exceptions. Gilbert writes about people with prefrontal lobe damage.

“Damage to the prefrontal lobe can make people calm,” he writes, “but it wipes out their ability to plan — in the lab, this means not being able to solve mazes or puzzles, in the real world they can’t discuss what they’re going to do do that afternoon. Both planning and anxiety are intimately connected to thinking about the future” (p. 14).

Of course, so is anticipating something like that fancy dinner.

A person with frontal lobe damage has no concept of the future, of “subjective time” and is living in what Gilbert calls a “permanent present.” “Such an existence is so difficult for most of us to imagine … that we are tempted to dismiss it as a fluke — an unfortunate, rare and freakish aberration brought on by traumatic head injury” (p. 16).

Gilbert goes on to say that, in fact, it’s not an aberration. In the animal kingdom, it’s the norm. Humans are the only animal that considers the future.

Our happiness isn’t now. It’s how we feel about later. And we’re not going to be happy when later becomes the present. The anticipation is the key.

Next time: What actually makes us happy.


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