On the Impossibility of Happiness: Part 2, Affective Forecasting Errors

In Part 1 I argued that one of the reasons we struggle with happiness is that we don't know what we want. We're often confused by ourselves, self-deceived, or in two minds. I end up looking in the mirror and asking myself, "Richard, what do you really want? What do you think will make you happy or more content?" and coming away with very few answers. I'm not sure what I want. So I guess, write down some goals, and head off into the darkness. Not surprisingly I end up tripping over myself or walking in circles

That's Reason #1 why happiness is "impossible": We don't know what we want.

But let's say you do, through honest introspection, come to know, with some clarity, what you want. You now know what you want. But having overcome this first challenge we immediately face a second problem, Reason #2 for why happiness is impossible: You've chosen poorly. You want the wrong thing.

In short, people can come to want X with some assurance and clarity. But that's no guarantee that X will move you toward happiness. And more often than not, it doesn't.

We all know this. How many times have we reached some goal only to find that its attainment really doesn't satisfy?

There is a growing psychological literature about why we make these mistakes. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert calls these affective forecasting errors. That is, when we stand at a decisional crossroad we have to make a guess, a forecast, about how we might feel getting to the end of the various roads out ahead of us. We squint into the future down Road A and forecast: "If I go this way I'll be happy." We squint down Road B and forecast "If I go this way I'll be unhappy." From there the decision is straightforward: We pick the road we forecast will make us happy.

But as we all know watching the evening weather on the news, forecasts are often wrong. And what psychologists are discovering is that we are as bad as those weathermen, worse even. Humans are very poor at affective forecasting. Day in and day out we flunk emotional meteorology. We go down Road A forecasting happiness, but when we arrive we find our destination overcast and rainy. We would have been happier going down Road B.

Why are we so bad at affective forecasting?

It seems to boil down to the fact that we don't understand how our minds work. It comes back to a lack of self-knowledge, failing to understand how the mechanics of happiness actually work on a day to day basis.

Three examples of this, two from Gilbert's research and one from the research of Barry Schwartz.

First example. Let's say you want to make a purchase from two different stores. Store A has a generous return policy. At Store B all sales are final. So where will you shop? Most of us will shop at Store A forecasting that, if we don't like our purchase, we can exchange it for something else. We fear making a mistake with our purchase and would like to keep our options open. That is, in affective forecasting we prefer situations that have changeable outcomes.

And yet, in a variety of studies it has been shown that changeable outcomes are often afflictions. We think changeability will make us happier but it often makes us second-guess to the point of distraction. Rather than protecting against regret ("If I don't like it I can just return it.") changeable outcomes often amplify rumination: "Should I return it? Shouldn't I? Do I really like it as much as I think I do? What should I do? What should I do?" The changeable outcome makes us obsessive.

But what if we are just stuck with our purchase or decision? What if the sale is final? Well, recognizing that nothing can be done about it we tend to get on with enjoying our life. And humans are remarkable at this. When the chips finally fall we tend to make the best of it. Gilbert calls this our psychological immune system, the protective psychological mechanisms that help reconcile us to our life circumstance. But here's the deal: The psychological immune system only kicks in when the situation forecloses, when the dust settles. Only then will we start rolling up our sleeves and look for silver linings. But if the situation is sill changeable the immune system doesn't kick in. Rather, we get stuck in those ruminative loops deciding what to do. All the while the psychological mechanisms that help make you happier sit idle on the sidelines, waiting for you to make up your mind.

So this is one reason we make affective forecasting errors. We tend to pick futures with changeable outcomes thinking that "keeping our options open" will make us happier. Who doesn't want more freedom and flexibility? But too much open-endedness can backfire.

Think about this in light of marriage and divorce. Think back to when divorce was harder, socially and legally. A marriage wasn't very changeable. Consequently, psychological immune systems kicked in and, though this isn't a very romantic thing to say, people got down to the hard work of making a go of it. And more often than not this produced, if not marital bliss, positive progress down the road of happiness. Compare that with the world we now live in, where marriage is much more "changeable," where divorce is easier. Nowadays marriages are more like shopping at stores with generous return policies. We now speak of "trial marriages." We're married but we're also keeping our options open. In light of all this, how are we going to cope with our spouse when things get difficult? True, in abusive relationships being able to exit the marriage easily is a blessing. But for the most part what is happening is that people never settle down to the work of loving and being loved by another flawed human being. And this holds not just for marriages but for friendships and church relationships as well. Being able to "change" our friendships or churches might seem like a good thing, the freedom to find something better. But over the long haul it only produces self-indulgence, superficially, and emotional immaturity. Which isn't the best path toward happiness and joy.

Second example: Impact bias. In Gilbert's research he has noted that we often overestimate the impact, good or ill, of life events. We tend to think the good stuff will be better than what it is and that the bad stuff will be worse. Basically, when making affective forecasts we tend to exaggerate the good and bad impacts upon us. And those exaggerations cause us to make forecasting errors. We move toward things we think will be awesome only to find them to be so-so. Or we avoid things we think are going to be terrible when they wouldn't have been bad at all, possibly even nice. This happens to me all the time. I'm introverted so when I have the chance to go to social functions I tend to avoid them, forecasting that it'll be awful and awkward. But more often than not if I'm forced to go I find that I have a really good time. And even if it wasn't totally fun it rarely is as bad as I thought it would be. I'm sure you can identify. But think about that. It suggests that I'm actually not very good at forecasting how I'll feel. I avoid things I think will be lame. But I'm wrong. Going would make me happier. I know what I want. I'm just making the wrong decision.

Third example: The choice paradox. We generally think having more choices is a good thing. That choice will make us happier. But the research suggests that choice can actually be a curse. The more choices we have the more overwhelmed we feel, the more we will worry about making the right choice, and the less satisfied we will be with our final choice. This is particularly a problem for those of us who are maximizers rather than satisficers. Regardless, the point is this: we'll often move toward situations (e.g., situations with greater choices) that we think will make us happy only to discover that we were mistaken (i.e., the choice paradox).

So, that's Reason #2 why happiness is "impossible." Summarizing:

Why is Happiness Impossible?

Reason #1: We don't know what we want.
Reason #2: Even if we do know what we want we want the wrong things.
Finally, for more on Gilbert's research here is a TED Talk he gave a few years back:

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3 thoughts on “On the Impossibility of Happiness: Part 2, Affective Forecasting Errors”

  1. Thanks! I got promoted to Full Professor at the start of the school year. I think that means I'm getting old.

    Regarding the header, I'm not sure I'm on board with it yet. I've liked everything about this blog template. The colors, the size of the post titles, the why the blockquotes look. But I never liked the header. It seemed too abstract and not very personal. So, in a kind of HTML hack, I swapped out the header with a picture a friend took of me taking notes at a retreat. I'm not sure it works, but it is more personal.

  2. I am wondering if this quandary of knowing who we truly are and our inability to make proper choices is rooted in the fact most of have failed to know our creator. If design speaks to purpose, could the sheer lack of understanding our design lead us to make decisions based on a perceived design offered by a fallen world?

    You used the marriage illustration which I want to agree with, but I am reminded how when recently I felt overwhelmed and trapped in the situation (not because it is bad, just recognizing the enormity of my decision), reminding myself I do have a choice calmed me. Do we have to sacrifice choice in order to be honorable and happy, or is it possible that we find happiness in making the honorable choice?

  3. Doing some reading for a January short course, and I came across the following quote from Thomas Keating, a contemplative who wrote extensively on centering prayers:

    "According to St. Augustine's theology, original sin has three consequences: (1) we don't know where happiness is to be found (ignorance); (2) we look for it in the wrong places (concupiscence); and (3) if we ever find out where it might be found, the will is too weak to pursue it anyway."

    Keating found this to be, on Christianity's part, a pretty dismal view of the human condition, but so far I've agreed with much of what you (and, apparently, St. Augustine) have written. It seems you're in good company.

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