Humans, on the whole, are incredibly bad at predicting our own happiness. We mistakenly think gorging ourselves on chocolate is a good idea, only to regret it later. We are positive that buying a new gadget will bring lasting happiness, only to find ourselves complaining about it a little ways down the road. We mis-remember our emotional states, focusing on how we felt during a “peak” moment (or perhaps just how we felt at the end of the experience), rather than accurately recalling our average emotional state.
Daniel Gilbert wrote an entire book on this subject. Check out Stumbling On Happiness if you’re interested in the psychology behind why we are absolutely terrible at predicting our own future emotions.
It doesn’t matter that we know we’re bad at it; it’s just the way we’re wired. Despite having read books on the subject, I still pretend I can somehow predict the future every time I’m faced with a decision. “I think this job will make me happier than that one, so I’m going to take it.” “I just know I’d love living in a warmer climate.” “I should buy this electric piano. I’ll practice all the time!”
It’s a good thing we can fool ourselves into thinking we can predict the future. Otherwise, we might never make decisions or plans.
Here’s the thing that I’m realizing, though. Whether or not I am happy as a result of the decision doesn’t actually say anything about the accuracy of my prediction. If I think the chocolate will make me happy, and it turns out it does make me happy, it means I was right, but not necessarily for the right reasons. I may have been accidentally right.
The truth is, my happiness at any given moment is based on entirely too many things to be accurately predicted. How much sleep did I get the night before? Did I just hear a good song on the radio? How many decisions have I had to make today?
Happiness in a certain moment is also largely a choice. I can recover from many “bad” decisions simply by choosing to put a positive spin on it. (I may not always feel capable of this, but sometimes I do.)
As someone who often agonizes over decisions, I find this thought to be pretty comforting. It means I don’t have to get all stressy about whether my prediction is going to be right or wrong. I can just make a decision based on the best information I have, and recognize that my ability to be happy is largely independent of the outcome.
Do you agonize over decisions? Do you think this reframing will help you reduce the perceived risk?