In my previous post, I wrote about the book Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist.  I didn’t much care for his belief that our momentary experience of satisfaction or pleasure is all that is meant by happiness, nor for his assumption that measures of that experience have much importance at all.  I didn’t say much about the main argument of his book, though, so I’ll remedy that omission here. 


Gilbert suggests that our ability to think about the future—to imagine some state of affairs that we anticipate happening—is what makes us uniquely human. Unfortunately, our imagination isn’t all we imagine it to be—it doesn’t do as well as we expect at accurately envisioning future events.  Why is that?  For one thing,  we fill in details of what a particular event will be like (Gilbert uses the example of a spaghetti dinner), with the particulars (canned or cooked; with tomato sauce, cream sauce, or no sauce) that may differ markedly from how the event actually transpires.  At the same time, we fail to include many pertinent features in our mental picture of what things will be like during that future event, such as the locale, our companions, the lighting, etc. Such features may have a tremendous impact on our emotional reactions to the event.  For example, in one study University of Virginia students overestimated how happy their football team’s upcoming victory over UNC would make them, probably because they thought only about the game and not about other events that occurred in close proximity, such as having to study for an exam or having a paper due. 


Besides anticipating some details incorrectly and omitting other things that are likely to occur, we are often erroneous in our expectations of how a future event will make us feel.  In general, we are likely to be less affected by negative events than we expected to be.  Another danger here is what Gilbert calls “presentism”, the tendency to think that future feelings will be like those we are having now.  Thus, the depressed person can’t imagine that even positive events will make him or her feel any better.  True, we do try to adjust our expectations, but, even then, we use present feelings as a starting point and don’t make sufficient adjustment from where we began (those familiar with Tversky and Kahneman’s work on cognitive heuristics might recognize this as an example of the anchoring heuristic).


Still another reason why we don’t feel as badly about things as we expected to is that we defend against unhappiness—we have what Gilbert characterizes as a psychological immune system to protect us from an overly negative view of ourselves and our situation.    Thus, the jilted lover comes up with reasons why being dumped was one of the best things that happened him or her, and the person who paid too much for crummy merchandise decides that this MP3 player or computer is the only one that has just the features they want.  We don’t anticipate constructing such rationalizations, though, so we expect that negative events will deflate us more than they do.


Gilbert does a good job of explaining each of the above points, and also marshals plenty of research evidence to support the argument.  His basic point—that we don’t do well at predicting how we will feel about future events—seems pretty well established.  If we don’t know what will make us happy, we aren’t very likely to choose well between possible courses of action.  Notice what Gilbert isn’t arguing, though. He’s not claiming that we have systematic biases that lead us to chose things that will make us unhappy:  the argument that we would be happy only if we chose X, but human nature makes us always chose Y instead.  For Gilbert, it’s something of a crapshoot; our imaginations fail us, so we are often making choices in the dark, or at least in lousy lighting.  His solution—to depend on the real-time reports of those who are undergoing the experience we are contemplating—may be helpful in some cases, though he has only tested it in matters such as predicting how one will feel after eating potato chips.  Before adopting such a strategy, I’d like to know how it works for predicting matters of more substance—how well it would predict how I would feel after switching careers, for example, or after retiring.