Predicting Our Own Happiness: Why We're Usually Wrong about How We'll Feel in the Future

Article excerpt

Will acing an exam truly make you happy? Will the snub of a cute co-worker send you into throes of despair? Maybe not. New research shows that people routinely discount their own personality biases when they envision how happy or sad they will be as a result of changing external circumstances.

Individuals who are naturally pessimistic imagine that they will be far more euphoric as a result of big life events than usually turns out to be the case. Folks who are usually in a great mood underestimate how much happier particular events will make them (which must make for a pleasant surprise later on).

The new study comes from psychological researchers Jordi Quoidbach of the University of Liege, Belgium, and Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia. To test their hypothesis that both pessimists and optimists tend to incorrectly predict their future happiness, they surveyed a group of college students to determine their base-level personality (from "optimistic" to "neurotic"). The subjects were then asked to imagine how they would feel, on a scale from one to five, if they received a certain grade in a class.

Six weeks later, when grades actually came out, the researchers surveyed the subjects again. They found a wide gap between how the students expected to feel and how they actually felt. But Quoidbach and Dunn did find a close correlation between how the subjects felt earlier and how they felt when they received their grades.

"Results supported our hypothesis that dispositions would shape participants' actual feelings but would be largely neglected when people made affective forecasts," they write.

In a second test, participants (Belgian adults) were asked to describe how happy they would be in the event that Barack Obama won the 2008 U.S. presidential election. After the election was called, the researchers again found that the participants' actual level of happiness reflected how happy they were when they were asked the question, not how happy they expected to be later.

Why are people so bad at predicting their future happiness levels? The problem may be in the brain. Previous studies have shown that the part of the brain responsible for envisioning future states is the same part tasked with remembering situations we've already experienced, the episodic memory center. …