Are You Overestimating How Much Things Affect You?
June 4, 2015
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Nicole's many emotions, affective forecastingPhoto Credit: allyaubry

How much would each of the following events affect you?

  • Buying your dream home
  • Being laid off from a job
  • Winning a large amount of money

If you’re like many of us, you’d probably guess that each of these experiences would have strong, relatively long-lasting effects on your emotions. But are our predictions about future events accurate? Affective forecasting is the area of psychology that looks at how accurately people can predict their emotional responses to future events. Research has found that, although we can predict if a hypothetical future event will be positive or negative in general, we’re not very good at predicting exactly how much this event will affect us. In today’s post, I’ll explain why we’re bad at this, and suggest how we can use the research on affective forecasting to help better understand what makes us happy.

How do we mis-predict our responses to future events? The psychologists Timothy Wilson and Daniel Gilbert have studied this question by asking people how much they think a certain event will affect them, and then following up after the event to find out how things really turned out. People sometimes underestimate how much events will affect them, but much more often, they overestimate the effects of a hypothetical event. When the event actually occurs, it often affects them both less strongly and for less time than they would have predicted.

Wilson and Gilbert have found that this holds true for a range of events, from small (such as a favorite sports team winning or losing a big game) to large (such as being denied a secured, tenured job as a professor or experiencing a romantic breakup).

Why aren’t we better at predicting our responses to future events? Psychologists have suggested that there are two factors in play. First of all, when we’re making our predictions, we tend to be very focused on that one event. If the event really does happen, however, there will be plenty of other things to occupy our attention, so we won’t actually be thinking about the event that much. For example, if you ask me how I’d feel about my favorite TV show being canceled, I’d probably tell you I’d be disappointed. However, if my show does get canceled, I’ll have other things to occupy my thoughts: there will be new TV shows I’ll start watching, and plenty of other things I’ll think about besides TV.

A second reason that events affect us less strongly than we think is that we start to process events and make sense of them very quickly. And once we have a good explanation for an event, it will affect us less on an emotional level. In the case of negative events, this phenomenon has a name: we have a “psychological immune system” that helps us to recover from things that are threatening or stressful. Although we often forget about the fact that it’s there, this “immune system” kicks in when we’re dealing with something negative and helps us cope with the event.

Can we become happier? If we tend to bounce back to baseline after experiencing both good and bad events, does our level of happiness ever really change that much? Some psychologists say that it doesn’t. According to a psychological theory called the hedonic treadmill, people adapt to their life circumstances the same way your eyes adjust when you’re in a darkened room or you get used to a bad smell. Consequently, people are temporarily affected by the good and bad things that happen to them, but they quickly return back to baseline, or what psychologists call their “set point.” One especially famous study found that even seemingly life-changing events don’t alter our happiness as much as you might think: lottery winners and people with paraplegia were no more or less happy than the rest of us.

However, other psychologists have presented evidence that our happiness levels are indeed changeable. For example, happiness levels differ between nations: nations that are more affluent and that respect human rights have happier citizens, which seems to suggest that social factors can influence our happiness level. In one long-term study, nearly 1/4 of participants saw a significant change in their happiness from the beginning to the end of the study. Additionally, psychologists have revisited the data from the famous study of lottery winners and people with paraplegia and found that the evidence was not as strong as originally suggested. Most importantly, psychologists have found that psychological interventions can increase our happiness, and the effects of these interventions persist even when participants are followed up after a year or more. So it may be that by asking, “Do people become happier?” we’re asking the wrong questions. Instead, we perhaps should be asking, “Why do some people become happier, and what sorts of experiences do make us happy?”

What sorts of events do affect our happiness? If we typically overestimate how much events affect us, are there any types of events that do have lasting effects on our happiness? One important finding from psychology is that cultivating strong relationships seems to be a key way to improve our well-being. According to one psychological theory, the need to feel like we belong is one of our most basic and fundamental motives as humans. To provide some evidence for the importance of building our social relationships, other psychologists have found that having a network of close relationships can even impact our health. Other psychologists have found that a variety of positive activities, from expressing gratitude or engaging in acts of kindness towards others, can increase our happiness levels.

How do we use this knowledge? Learning about affective forecasting can be important for helping us to understand our emotions and to keep things in perspective. In fact, it can be reassuring to hear that negative events don’t always affect us as strongly as we might think. For example, even if I do poorly on a test, a project doesn’t go as well as I’d planned, or I don’t find the perfect job after I graduate, I’ll probably be able to cope with these events much better than I think I’ll be able to.

But what about positive events? Since we want positive events to affect us strongly, how can we go about prolonging their effects? It seems like there are certain activities that are more important for well-being than others, and that fostering our relationships is particularly important. For example, we might be better off spending our money taking a friend out to dinner than buying that new gadget we’ve been eyeing. Some researchers have also suggested that we can combat our tendency to adapt to positive events. According to this model, we can prolong the effect of positive events by cultivating a variety of different types of positive experiences, and taking time to appreciate and feel grateful for the good things that have happened to us.

Affective forecasting suggests that we may be overestimating the effects that things have on us: we tend to think that events will affect us more than they actually do, regardless of whether these events are good or bad. However, it’s important to recognize that we can use this research to enhance our well-being: instead of accepting the consequences that events have on us, we can choose to utilize our innate coping mechanisms when bad things happen to us, yet work to prolong the effects that positive experiences have on us.

Further Reading:

Timothy Wilson & Daniel Gilbert: Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want

Ed Diener, Richard Lucas, & Christie Napa Scollon: Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being

Roy Baumeister & Mark Leary: The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith, and Bradley Layton: Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review

Sonja Lyubomirsky & Kristin Layous: How do simple positive activities increase well-being?

Kennon Sheldon & Sonja Lyubomirsky: The challenge of staying happier: Testing the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.


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