Have you ever felt nervous about a job interview, anticipating that you will be scared and that it will go wrong? Have you ever wondered what an old friend of yours would think of you when you finally meet again? Maybe you’ll feel embarrassed or unhappy with yourself, or on the contrary, you’ll enjoy sharing your newfound well-being. Or maybe right now you’re entertaining the idea of a future vacation, dreaming of fun and relaxation amid the chaos of the pandemic.
These are just a few examples of the ways in which every day we predict, anticipate, and imagine our future emotions. We need to do so to manage our expectations, to plan for the worst, or to keep looking forward to a brighter future.
But it turns out that we just suck at it. We’re so bad at it that our emotional predictions actually harm us, impacting our happiness, our decision-making, and social interactions.
Affective Forecasting: A Definition
First of all, let’s set the terms straight. Psychologists have come up with a term to talk about predicting how we will feel in the future. They call it “affective forecasting”. They further analyzed the concept by identifying four main components to it. When attempting to forecast our emotions, we usually determine whether they will be positive or negative, we then try to be more specific by identifying them, and finally, we try to figure out their intensity and duration.
How Affective Forecasting Affects Happiness
We’re particularly bad at figuring out the durability of our emotional reactions. We think that once we get what we want we’ll enjoy enduring happiness. Unfortunately, that is not the case. As a species, we have an amazing ability to adapt. That comes at a cost. Whenever something new and exciting happens in our lives, it soon fades into familiar and commonplace. Psychologists call the phenomenon “hedonic adaptation”. If we recognize this, we are given the opportunity to more easily build and maintain happiness. Rather than overestimating the impact of single events, expecting them to bring radical changes, we should strive to recognize and enjoy the little good things in life.
Durability isn’t the only thing we’re bad at predicting. Researchers have shown that we tend to have simplistic ideas about our emotional reactions. We also have a strong tendency to project our current emotional state in the future. If you feel bad now, you’re likely to think that you will feel bad in the future. If you feel good, you think that you will feel good in the future too. Remembering this can be particularly helpful if you’re in a bad mood. Being aware of your biases in affective forecasting can help you put things in perspective.
Be Careful What You Focus On
One last bit of advice: when trying to forecast our future emotions, we tend to focus on certain details of the events, while disregarding others. We focus on the big, obvious changes and we forget the smaller – but often more important – details of everyday life. Next time you’re making a decision, try to take everything into account. What actually matters for your emotional well-being? What brings you joy on a daily basis? Journaling can help you answer these questions.