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.