A new psychological study posits that people believe they will be happy in the future because they discount the possibility that bad things will occur.
Researchers say that people may imagine the many bad things that could happen in the future, but choose not to dwell on these possibilities.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the changeability of people’s perceptions of happiness,” said researcher Ed O’Brien, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Michigan. “On some days our futures seem bright and exciting, but on other days the same exact future event can feel stressful and terrifying.”
In the new study, O’Brien explored whether fluency — how easy or difficult it feels to think about different events — may play a role in how people think about well-being.
His findings are published in Psychological Science.
O’Brien conducted five studies, asking participants to complete online surveys with questions that addressed past and possible future experiences and perceptions of well-being.
In line with previous research, fluency amplified the effects of past events on participants’ reports of well-being. That is, the easier it was for people to generate positive past experiences, the happier they said they were in those times.
Likewise, the easier it was to come up with negative past experiences, the more unhappy people said they were. But this trend did not hold true for future experiences.
While thinking about positive future events was still correlated with people’s predictions of future happiness, thinking of negative future events didn’t have the corresponding effect. Thus, easily imagining negative possibilities did not sway people into believing that they would be unhappy in the future.
“People seem to ‘explain away’ the presence of bad possibilities, thinking that they won’t really occur,” O’Brien said.“But they have a harder time explaining the absence of good possibilities. The absence of good events in our future feels much worse than the presence of bad ones.”
That doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen to our friends, though. When participants were asked to imagine events and happiness for one of their close friends, they predicted that negative events would have a significant effect on their friend’s well-being.
Having to recall many positive events was more difficult than having to come up with only a few, and participants’ happiness ratings reflected this: People who were asked to recall 12 past events gave lower ratings of happiness for that period than people who were asked to recall only three experiences.
“Once you struggle to think about the good things, your life seems a lot less happy,” says O’Brien. “Ironically, trying to think of 10 good things that could happen to you and struggling with that list may be worse for your well-being than thinking about only two good things without any problem.”
But, just as before, the trend didn’t apply to negative events: There was no difference in predicted happiness whether participants were asked to think about three or 12 negative events.
Researchers say the findings suggest that, when it comes to negative events in the future, fluency doesn’t seem to matter — people expect that experiencing a few negative events is just as unlikely as experiencing many negative events.
And people are likely to believe the experiences will not occur at all.
O’Brien plans to next look at individual differences in the patterns, and apply them to other domains such as consumer behavior.
“Think about the counter-intuitive implications for increasing real buying behavior and customer satisfaction — maybe customers should be asked to consider all the bad things that could go wrong with the product they’re about to buy, rather than the good.”
Ultimately, these findings have implications for how we think about what makes us happy, O’Brien said.
“Anecdotally, many people endorse the belief that more happiness in quantity yields more happiness in quality. But these findings suggest that struggling to think about many happy aspects of your life can yield less happiness than easily imagining the negative aspects,” he said.