Have you ever noticed how much time people spend trying to predict the future? We want to know what the weather will be like tomorrow, what the stock markets will do next year, and whether the house we buy today will be a good investment in twenty years. There are a lot of experts out there purporting to be able to help you with these very important questions. But there is another question – perhaps the most important of all – that no one else can answer for you: what will make you happy? It is generally assumed that the person in question is the best possible judge of his or her own personal happiness, and that, again generally, they will get it right. Surprisingly, these assumptions are, more often than not, wrong.

In a wonderful book called Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert describes the mental and psychological processes that make people such poor predictors of their own future happiness. What it comes down is a failure of imagination – not so much in terms of ability (because people have incredible capacities for imagination) as in terms of performance. Quickly summarized, our imagination has three major shortcomings when it comes to helping us, well, imagine the future. First, it tends to fill in and leave out things without making us aware of it. Since it is impossible to imagine every possible facet of a future situation, we are likely to fail to consider some, which may be quite important and relevant to our future happiness in that particular situation. Second, our imagination tends to project the present onto the future. Gilbert uses the example of Thanksgiving dinner, and that post-turkey-feast feeling of being physically unable to eat even the tiniest extra morsel, now or at any time in the next 36 hours or, oh, ever again. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had that feeling far more frequently than once a year … and you also know how fleeting it always ends up being. Third, our imagination fails us by not recognizing that situations will likely look different once they actually happen and, in particular, that bad things will seem a whole lot better than anticipated.

I can attest to this shortcoming of imagination with a personal anecdote. I spent my last week of maternity leave in a state of near desolation at the thought of being apart from my son for the majority of the day, 5 days of the week. I even started giving serious thought to the idea of working part-time, despite the fact that it would mean a not-insignificant drop in our family income. About 2 weeks after my return to work, my thoughts have taken a radically different direction, and I am now considering whether to significantly ramp up my career path in the next 5-10 years. Can you imagine how (un)happy I might have been now, had I acted on my earlier feelings and expectations about the future?

If you are curious about Gilbert’s proposed solution to the shortcomings of imagination, he suggest that we use proxies – other people currently living out the different choices we are contemplating – to help us in our decision-making. He notes that when people are deprived of the information needed for their imagination to make future predictions, and are thus forced to use surrogates, they tend to make very accurate predictions. He goes on to deflate the myth that we are all as individual as fingerprints and, thus, unsuited to the use of proxies. If you’re no longer in grade 4, and are being honest with yourself, this will not come as a surprise. Gilbert puts it much nicely, and gently, in his book. Really, you should read the whole thing.

I found the book’s insights fascinating, not only because they helped to frame many of my own past experiences, but also because I found that they inspired me with hope. Hope might seem like an unlikely message to take from it, but here’s why it’s not. If future happiness is something of a crap-shoot, it becomes less of a decisive factor in prospective decision-making. I am freed from the fear of “But will this make me happy down the line?” so I can focus on more practical considerations. For someone like me, who is highly susceptible to the nostalgic appeal of the past – making my first preference, always, that things stay the same and not change – this is very liberating. In other words, if the fact that I was happy doing one thing in the past has no precise correlation to how happy I will be doing the same thing in the future (or even more importantly, how happy I will be doing something different), then letting go of the past and embracing change is a little bit easier.

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