Think quickly: imagine a future in which you (a) win $100,000,000 dollars or (b) become paraplegic. Which would you choose and which would make you happier? Still need more time to think? Of course not. You’re probably thinking that you’ve never had an easier decision to make. Well, the psychology of happiness if more complex than it appears.
Dan Gilbert, a Harvard social psychologist, studies a phenomenon called affective forecasting, our ability to predict our future emotional states. The evidence is clear – we’re terrible with predictions. We overestimate the effects of happiness inducing events and underestimate our ability to cope with negative experiences. Free money? Sure, why not? I couldn’t be happier! Loss of mobility? Sign me up for a lifetime of stress, depression, and anxiety! What Gilbert found, though, was far different. One year after winning the lottery or losing the use of their legs lottery winners and paraplegics were equally happy. Equally!
This is not a blog to hammer the trite point that money doesn’t buy happiness. It’s that we’re poor at making predictions regarding our happiness. We would do well to try to reserve judgment, have a little bit of patience, and allow ourselves to learn from experiences rather than guessing about experiences.
If you’d like to learn more about Dan Gilbert’s work you can view a fascinating video at Ted.com (http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html).