We can accurately predict how happy we will be in the future.

3.  True or false? We can accurately predict how happy we will be in the future.

A: False

Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist and best-selling author of Stumbling on Happiness has wrestled with the problem of defining and predicting happiness and has drawn some interesting and instructive conclusions (Gilbert, 2007). Instead of talking about predicting our future happiness, he says that we make systematic errors in what he calls “nexting.” In essence, our brains are continuously “nexting.” When we try to determine how stable it will be when we walk on the sand, or what we have to do to catch a ball or a Frisbee, we are constantly nexting into the future to imagine ourselves there.

The problem with nexting is that we are pretty well immersed in the now, and we have a hard time nexting to the future using anything else but the information we have right now.  Since we don’t actually know what is coming, we take our best guess based on what is in front of us. This is why we are often surprised and don’t always get it right when it comes to what will make us happy. We are actually not very good at imagining how happy we are going to be because our sense of tomorrow’s happiness can only be based on what makes us happy now.

But the future isn’t made up of what we know now. We can’t take into account what circumstances will come into our life to make us feel different in the future. Consider these examples: Christopher Reeve, after becoming a quadriplegic, reported that he was in some ways better off, as did Lance Armstrong after having cancer. In fact, cancer patients in general are more optimistic than those who are healthy.

The functional result of all of this is that we delude ourselves just enough to get by. It would appear that in order to be happy we have to fudge the data a little, just enough so we aren’t overwhelmed by the daily disappointments, unwelcome surprises, and the evening news.

The point of all of this is that mental well-being might be a matter of faking ourselves out to suggest we are happy enough now, and will likely be happy enough in the future. Ironically, the accuracy of our perception of the now may be one of the biggest obstacles in assessing exactly what may make us happy.