Life Lessons in the Real World

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Warning: Your Happiness Predictor is Broken

crystal.jpgIf you’ve ever lived to regret a big decision (a marriage, a big purchase, a job), you know how hard it can be to predict ahead of time how happy an event will make you.  Thankfully, all is not lost.       

Recently, while reading a book called Stumbling on Happiness by psychologist Daniel Gilbert, it occurred to me that, despite our difficulty knowing what will make us happy, our greatest hope lies in understanding and accounting for our 5 most common prediction errors:   

1. Presentism: Studies prove that the way we feel right now heavily influences predictions about how we expect to feel tomorrow.  If you’ve ever shopped for groceries on an empty stomach, you know what I mean.  The solution? The next time you’re faced with a big decision (something bigger than buying groceries and more akin to buying a new car or choosing a career), document how you feel about each of your options over time, in a variety of moods and circumstances.

2. Missing Information: We tend to leave out critical details when we envision the future. Some details are unknown; others ignored. Gather details by asking people who have accomplished what you’re attempting, researching thoroughly, and considering the many anticipated impacts of your pending decision, including the routine and mundane.  

3. Snowflake Syndrome: We think we’re special and unique; we’re not. Because humans are more alike than different, research has shown that we can predict future happiness more accurately by talking to others who are experiencing the thing we are contemplating. In other words, the firsthand, in-the-moment account of a stranger can be more accurate than a personal prediction.

4. Failure to Consider Big Numbers: And as long as you’re gathering the firsthand accounts of others, you might as well gather lots of them.  The more experiences you consider, the easier you’ll identify trends and patterns; therefore, the easier you’ll apply those trends and patterns to your own happiness predictions.

5. Poor Memory: In part, we base expectations upon experiences. Because our memories focus on the unusual instead of the routine, the ending instead of the long haul, we often don’t remember as accurately as we believe we do. If you don’t have any record more reliable than your memory upon which to base a decision, try discounting the unusual in favor of the routine and considering averages instead of endings.

Planning for the future is good (after all, we’re headed in that direction anyway),
and by being aware of our brain’s most common predictive errors, we increase our odds of success, so that we might one day find the happiness we so carefully design.  

Categories: Make Better Decisions


6 Responses to “Warning: Your Happiness Predictor is Broken”

  • Susan says:

    What’s your opinion of the Stumbling on Happiness book, John? Worth picking up?

  • JohnPlace says:

    Susan: Yes, it’s worth a read. It’s written very well and will pull you through to the end by sheer force of its prose. It’s not a perfect book by any stretch — it felt to me like Gilbert tacked some “solutions” onto the end of the book to satisfy an editor, since the only solution mentioned (considering the opinions of others) isn’t explored in its various permutations, and no other suggestions are offered.

    The book is very good if you want to understand the mind’s natural difficulties remembering the past, interpretting the present, or predicting the future. For solutions (which I have tried to provide in this article), you will have to look elsewhere.

  • Gene says:

    Hi John,

    I especially like the study that Dan quotes stating that lottery grand prize winners and people who have an accident causing them to be a paraplegic are equally happy six months after their respective events.

    I am a fan of Dan Gilbert and his work. I like the article.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Gene: I too was impressed with the results of that particular study. In fact, research has shown time and time again that achieving goals (financial or otherwise) does not increase our base level of happiness for very long; rather, it is the working toward goals that provides day-to-day meaning and enjoyment. That’s one reason it’s so important to find goals that satisfy our sense of enjoyment and meaning in the present tense.

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