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Predicting Happiness and Unhappiness: A Skill We Never Master

Predicting Happiness and Unhappiness: A Skill We Never Master Why do we have such a preoccupation with the future and the powerful range of feelings that we experience as a result — from intoxicating excitement to deepest dread? These emotions stem from how we think we will feel should certain conditions be met. Studies suggest that we are generally wrong in these predictions, yet we continue to plough huge quantities of emotional effort into this forward thinking

Our brains are equipped with an area known as the prefrontal cortex, a mental mechanism that grants us the unique ability, as a race, to simulate emotions prior to an event taking place. If you were to consider the prospect of acquiring a lasting disability, or conversely, the prospect of having your wages doubled, you would probably be confident as to how you would feel, given these eventualities; that would be your prefrontal cortex doing its job.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, followed up on a number of studies regarding prediction and found a startling reality — getting what we want (what the prefrontal cortex has given the thumbs up to) tends not to lead to an increase in our happiness. At the same time, getting what we don’t want does not tend to lead to a decrease in happiness.

This is something that has already been known for decades in economics. Most of us labor under the preconceptions that having more money will make us happier, yet repeated evidence shows that any increase in income (beyond what is required to steer us out of poverty) does not lead to an increase in happiness. Despite these facts we are typically quite prepared to continue our pursuit for upward mobility.

Hope and Fear

If this is the case then two of our most fundamental emotions seem of questionable use to us: fear and hope. These describe the extremes of the spectrum when it comes to considering the future. Jean-Paul Sartre, the continental, existential philosopher, believed that our world is fundamentally structured around our project for the future. That is to say, that each decision we make and every memory we form is created in order to confirm and propel us toward our anticipations of tomorrow. As far as he was concerned, hope and fear constitute the majority of our world. What good is all this mental investment in the future when our predictions are probably wrong?

Hope and fear are two emotions that can play havoc with our current emotional state if taken to extremes. Both emotions are capable of driving us into anxiety and depression. Fear can plunge us into anxiety through our constant vigilance against potential danger and into depression through a sense of defeat and hopelessness. Hope, on the other hand, can have us anxiously and desperately peddling to reach a goal that either never arrives or constantly shifts each time we reach it, or can drown us in depression when we realize that we are never going to reach our goals.

Why Worry about the Future?

Herein lies the crux of the problem. We seem to invest an enormous quantity of psychic energy, so much so that we often ruin our mental health, in predictions that are probably incorrect and will work out very differently from our expectations.
Consider the manically anxious, career-driven individual that loses out on family, friends, their love life and any form of relaxation in the hope that they will, someday, have that position or that salary. Most rational minds can see that getting there won’t provide any major improvement in that person’s happiness; indeed, the vacuum left behind after the effort of reaching this goal may well harm their mental health.

Another familiar story would be the depressed individual who stays at home all day, every day in an emotional twilight for fear of the awfulness of being ridiculed if they were to venture outside. Once again, it is fairly simple to take the rational approach that this individual’s happiness would not be seriously compromised if said ridicule was to take place; if it took place at all.

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Studies carried out many years ago by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi confirm this line of thought. ‘Experience sampling’ was an experiment carried out by Csikszentmihalyi in which a broad range of individuals were equipped with buzzers. These buzzers would go off eight times throughout the day. As soon as they did, participants had to note down how they were feeling at that exact moment.

The findings showed that when people were trying to enjoy themselves, they were least likely to enjoy themselves. Watching television was the main culprit; taking time out to relax in front of the box turned out to be a point at which many felt low or empty. In fact, it was the activities that tended to move toward a goal that proved to be the most rewarding, rather than the goals themselves.

This brings us to an age-old concept that we ritualistically forget as a species: ‘success is the journey not the destination.’ It seems that people dedicate vast psychic resources on the basis of predictions that will probably be wrong. Why? Because this is the best evolutionary method for steering us away from harm and toward progress. It’s important to note here that what is good for survival is not always good for happiness. We are programmed to survive; we are not programmed to be happy – that involves some work.

Predictions in Psychotherapy

There are some powerful ways in which psychotherapy and counseling can manage the strain of the prefrontal cortex on our emotional state. One method is to drill down into predicted events. This involves taking a prediction, unpacking it to its logical conclusion and then fully describing what the effect of that would be like with regard to future happiness.

A typical way of doing this is to describe an imaginary ‘day in the life,’ once the overbearing, predicted ‘event’ has occurred. Clients are asked to consider waking up, getting ready, seeing family, going out the house, going to work, the whole day through to bedtime, all in the context of the ‘event’ having taken place. Once people start to see that, actually, the process of getting on with life will still be much the same as it is now – it will take the sting out of the prediction’s tail. Our brain makes a deeper use of its capacity to ‘see’ future emotions and begins to realize that there is much, much more to life than this one dominating factor by which, in the past, we have been blinded.

In Conclusion

Our obsession with the future is not a psychic design fault; it’s one of the functions of our brains that make us as smart as we are. But it is important to remember that this function is there in order to spur us on to do work so that we can enjoy today and survive tomorrow; it is not an accurate reading of the future – far from it. While we should continue to be guided by our predictions, it can be of crucial importance that we realize that the best reason for doing so is that we will probably end up being fulfilled by the process of reaching these goals or avoiding these threats – not by the end result itself.

Consequently, when the process starts to damage our mental health, we need to realize that it is the ‘here and now’ that actually provides us with enjoyment. We should be highly skeptical of our predictions; after which we can begin to assign ourselves new goals to reach, new threats to avoid – ones that provide us with fruitful and enjoyable labour in the present, not a world drowned in anxiety and depression due to thoughts of tomorrow.

Predicting Happiness and Unhappiness: A Skill We Never Master

Ciaran O'Connor

Ciaran O’Connor is a UK-based psychotherapist and counsellor working in private practice around East Sussex. He works alongside the Federation of Disabled People as a counsellor and disability awareness instructor, delivers training in Mental Health First Aid as well as being a professional game designer. Click here to see more of Ciaran's work at his psychotherapy and counselling website.

APA Reference
O'Connor, C. (2018). Predicting Happiness and Unhappiness: A Skill We Never Master. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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