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47. Forecasting Happiness

PUBLISHED 4th April , 2017

Karl loves four wheel driving. A self-supporting student, he went out on a limb and bought his dream four wheel drive truck on a substantial loan. The house he shares with his mates had already been burgled twice. And then the thieves came and stole his new truck. The insurance would only pay out if the car had disappeared for good, so Karl was left in limbo. He was devastated: all the sweat of doing his degree during the day and then working until midnight, only to be left with a massive loan and nothing to show for it. The next night, cruising the dark street in his friend’s car after his shift, Karl suddenly felt inspired to just keep driving around to look for his truck. He scanned random suburbs and streets, and then found himself lost closer to home. But he didn’t mind – he felt he would find his way home somehow. Then he noticed a truck travelling ahead without lights. “Strange,” he thought, and decided to follow it from a distance. It seemed to be similar to his stolen truck. When it disappeared down a driveway, he parked, cut his lights, waited and then stole down the driveway. As he came closer he realised: this was in fact his truck! Filled with unflinching resolution, he returned to his car, parked it to block the driveway, and called his mates and the police. He vowed to make use of the baseball bat if necessary; but he was determined not leave without his truck. At this point two burly guys came out of the house and asked him what the hell he was doing in their driveway. “This is my truck,” he said, pointing. “The cops are on their way, and I am not leaving without it.” At that moment another six shady characters came out of the house, but the adrenalin rushing through Karl’s veins made him fearless. “Just bring it on,” he thought, clasping his baseball bat. Right then his two mates arrived, upon which some occupants withdrew into the house. Shortly after the police arrived: six cars and twelve officers! They knew everyone in the house by name, and immediately took four guys into custody. And Karl, spirits soaring, got into his truck and drove it home.

Of all the true stories I have the privilege of sharing in this blog, this one seems to take the cake: I mean – really? What are the chances of cruising around the streets of Perth at night looking for one’s stolen truck, and actually finding it? Anyone asked to rate Karl’s chances would probably have estimated them close to zero. And yet this blog post is not about miracles. Today I want to consider our future predictions for our happiness, called affective forecasting. This term stands for our estimation of how happy or unhappy an event or choice will make us. The fact is that, as a rule, we are pretty bad at estimating how events will emotionally impact on us.

Wilson and Gilbert reason that people do indeed know that “a root beer will be more pleasant than a root canal.” We know which events will bring us enjoyment and which will feel unpleasant. Where we anticipate wrongly, Wilson and Gilbert assert, is how intense our emotional reactions will be and how long they will last. They call this misjudgement impact bias, and proof of it was found in a variety of studies. This included overestimations of happiness or unhappiness in regard to assigned desirable/undesirable dormitories, two months after romantic break-ups, college professors offered/not offered tenures, and undesired pregnancy test results. 1 Diener and Biswas-Diener point out that our impact bias matters because we constantly make decisions based on what we project into the future.2

The impact bias has various causes, according to Wilson and Gilbert. One is called focalism, “the tendency to overestimate how much we will think about the event in the future and to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings”.3 When I broke up with my partner a year ago, I expected to be sad for a long time. Instead, I made a new friend who liked dancing as much as I do. Together we hit the dance floors of Perth, and I got asked out so frequently that even though I declined, it was a great boost for my self-esteem. Old friends I had neglected came back into my life; other, new friends became close friends, and I actually had a ball. I simply didn’t focus that much on the separation.

Diener and Biswas-Diener explain how our failure to see the bigger picture makes us fall into the trap of focusing illusions. This happens when we grant one fact of a choice more weight than others, and is especially likely to bias us if that fact is either clearly positive or negative. In one focusing illusion we are so taken by the positives that we forget to consider the draw backs. (For example, I will love living in that house – when the mortgage will actually cripple and stifle us.) In the other we fail to see the positives in something obviously negative. (My example: I will be so lonely without a partner – when in fact I felt lonely very few times.)  The focusing illusion can also appear when choosing between alternatives. Comparisons we make when buying products, for example, fade away once we take an item home and experience it. Another trap is to be swayed by novelty. Anything new is fresh and exciting. But lo and behold – our amazing human capacity for adaptation will ensure the new does not stay so for long.4

In the power of human adaptation lies the key to our impact bias: Wilson and Gilbert write that we are less affected by events than what we anticipate because we are largely unaware of the speed with which we try to make sense of events. When faced with a self-relevant, unexpected event that we can’t understand, we tend to emotionally react, grant it a lot of attention, and aim to explain what happened. Making sense of the event will assist us to emotionally adapt to it. This unawareness of how we process life events in order to adapt to them also leads us to underestimate our psychological resilience. Wilson and Gilbert note: “Like the physiological immune system that fights threats to physical health, people have a psychological immune system that fights threats to emotional wellbeing.” The defence operations that underlie this immune system are largely unconscious, i.e. we adopt subtle attitudes to reduce the impact of negative emotional experiences to maintain or rebuild our self-esteem. 5 For example, if we have missed out on a job, it will likely become somewhat less desirable for us, yet we will be generally unaware that this is due to our psychological immune system.

In terms of positive unexpected events, research has shown that rationalising them actually leads to a loss of positive emotional impact, i.e. the positive surprise loses its magic and this lessens our enjoyment.6

So here is my advice: Don’t be afraid of what is around the corner, because whatever happens in our life, we have more psychological defences, strength and ability to adapt than we give ourselves credit for. And when good things happen, try not to analyse them. Like Karl, take it with a smile, bathe in your moment of good fortune, and keep on cruising.

© Natalie Lydia Barker 2017


  1. Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 14, no. 3 (2005).
  2. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008).
  3. Wilson and Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting”.
  4. Diener and Biswas-Diener, Happiness.
  5. Wilson and Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting”.
  6. Wilson and Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting”.


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