“Sooner or later comes a crisis in our affairs, and how we meet it determines our future happiness and success. Since the beginning of time, every form of life has been called upon to meet such crisis.”
Have you ever met someone who was stuck in a timeshare that they were desperate to get rid of? They probably had been to some sort of presentation where they were wowed by a slick salesman who reframed the purchasing decision into monthly payments and emphasized how easy it would be to have the same vacation in the same place at the same time year after year after year. Then, when reality set in, these people realized that the future they’d envisioned was nothing like what they actually experienced.
There are times when we’re good at predicting how our future selves will feel, but there are times when Monkey Brain looks into the crystal ball, and we aren’t particularly good at predicting how we’ll feel about something in the future. As research from George Loewenstein from Carnegie Mellon and David Schkade from the University of Texas shows, we are subjected to a variety of cognitive biases that cloud our ability to predict how our future selves will react to situations. We’re great at predicting that if we eat a bowl of ice cream, we’ll reach a point of satiation, but we tend to think that accidents and calamities happen to other people and can never happen to us.
As a result, we tend to overestimate the extremes of feelings that our future selves will feel. This ranges from the joy we think that we’ll experience in winning the lottery to the agony someone in solitary confinement in prison would experience. Because humans are adaptive – which is why it’s easy to find yourself on the hedonic treadmill – while we may experience an extreme feeling for a short period of time, we do eventually adjust.
However, the inability to predict our true happiness at future outcomes can lead us to make decisions now which our future selves might not have wanted us to make. Let’s look at a few examples: