July 21st, 2008

When Predicting Happiness, Your Imagination is Wrong

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Our mind's eye often plays tricks on us when we imagine our future
Our mind's eye often plays tricks on us when we imagine our future

When we imagine the future, we often do so in the blind spot of our mind’s eye.

-Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

As a kid, you were probably asked the common question adults ask all kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. You used your imagination and came up with an answer. It is highly likely that you did not become what you said you wanted to be as a child. But your imagination as a child predicted that you would be happy in that occupation. What do you think about your predictions now?

For me, as a child, first I wanted to be paleontologist, then Batman, and later, a magician. I did not become any of those, and I don’t know if I would be happy with as any of them (well, maybe as Batman!). So why was my imagination such a bad predictor of what occupation I would be happy with in the future?

The book Stumbling on Happiness describes three errors we make when trying to imagine our future happiness:

Three Errors We Make When Predicting Happiness

Error #1: Realism- We are often fooled by our own imaginations.

Example: When you recall a memory from the past, the brain actually re-writes that memory. The more you don’t remember, the more the brain will embellish when re-writing the memory.

Error #2: Presentism- Applying our current emotional state and ideals onto thoughts of our past or future.

Example: When you are depressed, you vaguely remember being happy in your past, and you don’t think anything in your future would make you happy.

Error #3: Rationalization- We often misjudge how we will feel about the future when we finally get there.

Example: When imagining about a future positive event, such as winning the lottery, you often overestimate your level of happiness.

If our imagination is so bad at predicting our future, how can we predict our future happiness?

Tips for Predicting Future Happiness

1) Never trust your gut

Instead of simply contemplating how your future would be, and making opinions based on that, question yourself.

Example: If you think you would be happier in a different field of work, question yourself. Are you simply having a bad day? Or have you felt like this for some time? Ask others if they think you would enjoy a different field of work.

2) Take action

You will learn a lot more by taking action than you would ever learn by contemplating.

Example: If you think you would be happy in a different career, go job shadow for a day. You will learn a lot more about the job in that day than you ever would have using your imagination.

3) Talk to someone who has already done what you want to do

Because we don’t realize how similar we all are, humans often refuse to use others as surrogates. Taking to someone who has already done what you want to do is an effective way to predict your future emotions. As shown by presentism, realism, and rationalization, relying solely on your imagination is flawed in many ways.

Example: If you think you would be happy in a different career, talk to someone who has already been in that career field. You will get a more realistic perspective than you would have using your imagination.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ellhoisa

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2 Responses to “When Predicting Happiness, Your Imagination is Wrong”

Sara at On Simplicity

July 21st, 2008 - 6:30 pm

Stumbling on Happiness was both incredibly scary and surprisingly refreshing. It felt like it took some of the pressure off of me to make the “right” decisions.

I definitely thought it was interesting that our brain will essentially create memories and knowledge that simply isn’t accurate. Makes me think twice before arguing with my husband over what one of us said or didn’t say!

Derek Ralston

July 22nd, 2008 - 1:45 pm

@Sara: Yeah the book had an impact on me also… It wasn’t the easiest read, as it isn’t like a lot of self help books that have motivating/actionable steps along the way. But it was very interesting, and it does make you question the way to think about most things!

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