女大学生的沙龙

女大学生的沙龙: Do the things we long for make us as happy as we expect?

As lockdown restrictions ease, how good are we at predicting how we'll feel about much-anticipated activities?

Stock photo of a woman looking confused in a supermarket
If we're not hungry when we shop, we underestimate how hungry we'll be later in the week Credit: Juan Napura/EyeEm

As we ease ourselves back into a life approaching normal, there is a certain amount of pressure to enjoy the activities we yearned for while we weren’t allowed to them.

But how accurate are we when it comes to knowing how much we’ll enjoy a future event?

Not very, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. When individuals make predictions about their emotional reactions to future events, he’s found they overestimate both the strength and the duration of their feelings, whether the event is positive or negative.?

For example, Barbara Mellers and Peter McGraw at Ohio State University found dieters who failed to lose weight didn’t feel as bad as they thought they would; and women awaiting results from a pregnancy test overestimated how unhappy they’d be if they received unwanted results. In his own work, Gilbert found undergraduates overestimate how happy or sad they feel after being assigned to a desirable or undesirable halls of residence; and individuals whose relationships end overestimate their how bad they’ll feel two months later.

There are a number of reasons why we make these mistakes. One is that, when estimating, we focus only on the anticipated event itself; failing to take into account how much other factors will influence our thoughts and feelings at that future time. For example, because you’ve been socially isolated, when you think about returning to work you may consider only how much you’ll enjoy seeing colleagues again, while forgetting you’ll also face the hassle of commuting, sorting out family before leaving for the office, and having to work entirely to someone else’s schedule.

We’re also influenced by our current circumstances when estimating how we’ll feel in future. Gilbert found, for example, if participants shopped when they’d just eaten, they underestimated how much they’d want ice cream later in the week.

Extraneous factors can also influence our estimates. When David Schkade at the University of Texas and Daniel Kahneman at Princeton asked students at Midwest and California universities who they thought will be happier, almost everyone said California students must experience greater wellbeing, because they assumed objective factors such as the better weather and greater cultural opportunities were key. Yet when asked to estimate their own level of life satisfaction, students at Midwest universities were just as happy as those in California.

Taken together, the research shows we’re very bad at knowing how we’ll feel in future. We overestimate the impact change will have on us and how long the impact will last; we find it hard to imagine the whole picture; and we allow current feelings and extraneous factors to colour our estimates of future events.?

Instead of clinging on to memories of a time when everything was 'normal’, why not focus on what you can enjoy right now??

After all, whatever the future holds, you’ll almost certainly find a way of adjusting to it. ? ? ? ?

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