We’re Not That Good at Imagining

If you enjoy Seinfeld reruns, there’s an episode in which Jerry came to the realization that when something doesn’t work out – something else will show up, unexpectedly. No matter what, he was always Even-Steven.

Unfortunately, real life just doesn’t work like that. But what separates us from all other animal forms is our ability to consider emotional forecasting and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we’re not very good at it, and that very much affects our happiness, something he describes in his book Stumbling on Happiness.

One of his experiments some years ago gave people a choice of a three-year job: The first one paid $30,000 the first year, $40,000 the second year and $50,000 the third year. The other choices was one where the pay was $60,000 in the first year, $50,000 the second and $40,000 in the third. Most of the people chose the first job.

Yet the math shows the second job has a total of $30,000 more pay! Why pick the other one? Because we hate to take a pay cut. The more complex explanation, according to Gilbert, is that our minds prefer relative numbers over absolutes. So the experimental group didn’t imagine themselves three years out when they were guaranteed to be less happy with their choice when looking back.

Gilbert also argues that we mostly err in predicting our future misery or happiness. High Golds plan and worry. They look to have a plan B and plan C and often start on the premise of “what if it doesn’t work out.” Greens, by nature, are generally very skeptical and can also look to the pitfalls, what they haven’t considered or what could go off the rails when imagining some future outcome.

But for all of us, it’s also an important consideration that when we’re faced with a decision about the future either decision will be right. Most often, there isn’t a doom and gloom way and a happiness way. If it were that easy, we wouldn’t sweat so much over the decision. But rather, either decision is right. They’re just different, and lead to different experiences and outcomes, both of which can easily be positive.