• Ciaran Burks

On Happiness II : Mis-Predicting Happiness

This chapter delves science behind our happiness predictions. It is clear that we overestimate both the positive and negative effects of events in our life. Do you recall at the beginning of the book I highlighted the two different types of happiness that psychologists have recently identified? The first type, Emotional Well-Being measures our day-to-day experiences and Kahneman calls it the “experiencing self”. The second type, Life Satisfaction, measures reflections we have about our life in general. It asks questions like “how happy are you with how your life turned out?” and Daniel Kahneman calls it “the remembering self”.

The studies I discuss in this chapter cover both aspects of Subjective Well-Being. In some studies, participants were asked to rate their happiness with life generally, long after the events in the studies had been carried out, while other studies asked questions related to emotional states ten minutes after the experiment. This just to say, our miss-predictions of happiness are evident in short-term emotional effects and long-term effects of our life evaluations.

Let’s start with something practical. Imagine your dream job right now. Imagine getting a call from your dream employer and getting that raise. Imagine walking into your new offices, sun shining brighter and a huge smile across your face. This is what you’ve studied so hard to achieve or worked towards for years in your career.

First, I want you to rate your general happiness level now (assuming you’re in a neutral, baseline state). Then, predict your happiness at the point that you have been offered the job, on a 10-point scale where 1 is not very happy and 10 is very happy. Now do the same, imagining you have applied for and been rejected for the job in mind. I did this exercise and I came out with these numbers:

Baseline happiness: 7/10

Get the job: 8/10

Don’t get the job: 5/10

Gilbert et al. (1998) actually carried out this experiment. They conducted studies, to measure how people’s prediction of their future emotional well-being (known as their affective forecasts) differed from their actual emotional well-being (their affective reactions). In other words, do you feel as happy or as sad as you expect when something good or something bad happens to you. Gilbert et al. (1998) carried out experiments across 6 different scenarios, including:

1. A break-up

2. Failure to achieve tenure (a job university lecturers desire highly)

3. Losing an election

4. Getting negative feedback on your personality

5. Hearing about the death of a child

6. Being rejected by a prospective employer

In my example, my predicted drop (the difference between my baseline and predicted happiness if I were to be rejected) in happiness was 3 points. Gilbert and co-authors found something similar. They found that, on average, participants expected 2.10 points drop in happiness after hearing bad news. I am clearly a little more mentally unstable than the average person! However, after conducting the experiment, Gilbert and his colleagues found that the actual drop in emotional well-being of the participants was only 0.68 points. In other words, we expect to be more upset by bad news than we actually are.

What’s going on here? In the Gilbert et al. (1998) study, the authors were considering the effects of negative events on our emotional well-being, and they found people to be more emotionally resilient than we expect. The study (1998:617) notes that “participants failed to distinguish between situations in which their psychological immune systems would and would not be likely to operate and mistakenly predicted overly and equally enduring affective reactions in both instances. The present experiments suggest that people neglect the psychological immune system when making affective forecasts.”

What’s more, studies are not optimistic about our ability to learn (at least not passively) from previous forecast errors. In other words, even though you and I now know that we are likely to overestimate the negative consequences of a bad outcome on our subjective well-being, we are unlikely to improve our forecasting in future scenarios. This observation is important because I want you to make better decisions in the future, to learn from this book. For that to happen, I need to delve into the mechanisms that cause us to overestimate both good and bad events. This bias, known as the durability bias, causes us to think both good and bad outcomes will have an emotional effect long after the event has passed. Psychologists have found, on the contrary, that we are generally happy most of the time and that we return to a baseline happiness sooner than we expect. I am not saying that certain events can’t, or don’t, have traumatic effects. War, death and suffering can have significant, lasting impacts. However, our ability to recover, and to adapt to new norms is remarkable, and many experiences just aren’t as terrible as we think. We think that if we get fired we’ll crawl under the desk and die, but actually we’ll probably go home and enjoy a late movie night because we have no work tomorrow. Then, we’ll find another job, spend less in the meantime, and maybe catch up with friends. For some, such events can even be transformative.

Given that I want us to learn from this experiment, what are the mechanisms that cause us to overestimate both positive and negative emotional reactions? And, how can we improve our predictions to make better choices? If you’re faced with going to visit your parents or finishing a work assignment, you might be tempted to finish the work assignment. If you’re stuck studying for next week’s test and a friend needs your support, most ambitious people will study for the test. Why? Well, we tend to focus on specific aspects of an experience in making such decisions. If I need to finish a work assignment I am thinking of the worst possible consequences:

“Oh no, if I don’t write this email, come Monday I’ll probably get fired, my name dragged through the dirt, get slapped in the face, mugged on the way home, lose my house, my car, my wife and end up in robbing gas stations for a living.”

We tend to focus only on the possibility and consequences of, say, getting fired. We obsess over that string of consequences to the exclusion of all else. We fail to consider that maybe nobody even notices we were delayed, or that an excuse will work fine, or that someone else can do the work. We don’t think of how we might find a better job that doesn’t require the exclusion of all else. This mechanism of the brain, dubbed Focalism, causes us to forget that one experience doesn’t define our lives. Even in the unlikely worst-case scenario of getting fired, there are events that will capture our attention, require our participation, engage us, make us laugh and smile. The sun will shine regardless, our mom will still love us, our friends won’t abandon us. Life is made up of thousands of experiences. When we predict the impact of one experience, we forget about the nine-hundred and ninety-nine other good things in our lives. But when it comes to living, well, we get on with it, and realise that things are still pretty good. Hell, maybe they’re even better.

Dan Gilbert, in Stumbling on Happiness (2006) gives a great example of poor forecasting and the role of Focalism. If you survey United States citizens who don’t live in California if they would be happier in California, can you guess what they say? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”. Californians too, believe that they are happier people. As it happens though, they’re wrong! And I hope you’re not still surprised by this. Why is this the case? You guessed it, Focalism. People have an image in their mind when they think of California. What’s yours? Mine too! It looks a bit like this:

What do tend to forget is that life in California is much like life everywhere else. I still have that 9-5 job, a frightening mom in law and an empty bank account. Flu is still a thing, traffic is horrible and the place I live smells too much like old-cat-lady, or maybe dead-old-cat-lady. There are a million tiny details that we forget and it’s these details that influence our happiness, both minute-to-minute and overall.

Luckily, there is a solution to this problem. In one study (Wilson, et al., 2000) the researchers improved the forecasts of study participants significantly. The researchers asked avid American football fans to rate their happiness after the result of an extremely important game. The first group was asked simply to rate their happiness on a scale from 1-10. The second was asked the same thing, but were urged to think about the things they will be doing besides obsessing over a game of American football. These other activities included studying, chores, parties and visiting with friends and other daily activities. In the first group (I really hope you’re expecting this by now), the participants who “lost” the football game hugely overestimated how unhappy they’d be three days later while the “winners” massively overestimated how happy they’d be. But the second group, who were asked to widen their focus, improved their predictions.

Chapter 2 Activity : Practicing Prediction

We now know that we aren’t very get at predicting what will make us happy or unhappy or how strong the effect will be. The skill of identifying what makes us happy is important though. If we go through life never knowing what actually makes us happy, we‘re doomed to chase all the wrong things. We’re doomed to ignore important relationships, sacrifice time for money and increase the level of unnecessary suffering in our lives to no good end. To combat this, we are going to practice two things:

1. Imagining future scenarios more accurately


2. Identifying what makes us happy in the moment

Imagining future scenarios

There is good evidence that imagining the “big picture”, the details of daily life, as opposed to just one event, helps in our predictions. If we can train ourselves to better predict the consequences of our decisions, we can make better decisions and live a happier life. Luckily, we all have rather large data sets, our lives. We all have a range of experiences to draw from when we think about the future. We’ve all experienced some positive and negative events that, at the time, seemed like they would have a huge and lasting impact on our future happiness. When imagining future scenarios and their consequences, we can use memory to recall previous mispredictions. However, because memory is not 20/20, we will combine this technique with the one Gilbert et al, (1998) used to good effect.

First, consult the 5-item list you wrote up in the activity for Chapter 1. Examine the first item, the thing, experience, or event that you thought would make you significantly happier. My item was landing “a job with a higher salary”. Second, imagine experiencing that event, without effort. Just imagine getting what you want and being happy. For my part, I imagine reading the acceptance letter, smiling and phoning my wife, family and friends to share the good news. Third, imagine the realities of the experience in question, the details that lead up to it and how your daily life would change as a result. Continuing with my example, I would have to get up earlier in the morning to commute to work. Maybe my new job is more demanding, so I spend more time at work than my current job. I imagine standing on a train crowded with people, imagine being bent over a desk at a computer, speaking with clients – some lovely and others angrier than banana-less monkeys. I imagine getting home after sunset, warming up a microwave meal and sitting down with my wife for dinner. I also imagine the prestige of the new job, how my friends and family are proud of me and what I might be able to do with the extra money. The point of this exercise is not to diminish the experience, but to reflect it accurately.

Ask things like:

- How would my daily routine change?

- What are the activities I will be doing? (E.g. mow the lawn, go to a party, cook dinner, go to gym)

- Would daily life be radically transformed in any way?

I mentioned that past experiences can also help with this experiment. In my case I can recall a similar experience, which I had right out of university. I wanted desperately to land my first job and I had worked tirelessly to find the right one. I can remember receiving the call that I got the job. I was stuck in traffic on the highway on my way home. When the call ended (it was Bluetooth so I didn’t need to “hang up”), I smile widely and might even have given a “woop!” of excitement. I remember thinking the salary was decent and being happy about it and excited for my first day. I am still working the same job, I even got a 30% increase. But I want that next job, the next jump in salary. Looking back and writing this, in all sincerity, has me wondering about the value in that. My intuition still strongly tells me that the next job will make me happier, but my rational mind knows to doubt it.

Now look again at your list from chapter 1. Take each of the items and reassess your scores. You should notice that their effects get reduced anywhere from 1 point to 3 points. In my example, my scores are significantly lower. This doesn’t mean that these things would make me unhappy, just that the effects of each one of these single experiences are likely to have less of an effect than I first imagined.

1. A job with a higher salary (6/10)

2. A house that my wife and I design and build from scratch (7/10)

3. Going on an overseas holiday (8/10)

4. Manchester United winning the Premier League (6/10)

5. Having kids (8/10)

Now it’s your turn, rescore your list from chapter 1.






So, the things I thought would make me super happy will only help a little, does that mean that all hope lost? I mean, if getting a great job doesn’t make me happy, what does? This is one of the key questions in the book and we’ll find many answers to it in the following chapters. Research gives us the facts of happiness, and we know a lot – probably more than you expect – on what makes us happy. However, there are always exceptions and deviations from the averages that we’ll be examining in the following chapters. As part of this chapter’s exercise then, we should practice identifying what makes us happy day-to-day.

Identifying what makes us happy in the moment

This task is going to take some time. If you integrate it into your life, it will stick with you forever. For now, though, I want to do something for just one week. If you continue reading after this exercise, that’s ok, but do not do any of the other the other exercises in the book just yet. For one week, try to focus on the activity only.

Most of us, myself included, go through life on automatic pilot. Advertisers, our parents, mentors, and gurus of various kinds all tell us what they think will make us happy. We rarely stop to take notice about how we’re feeling about things in the moment. This mindfulness of everyday experiences is important for two reasons. First, if we realise how much we’re enjoying something in the moment, we can be grateful for it, which studies reveal is great for happiness (more on that later). Secondly, by making short mental notes of how much we’re enjoying or disliking something in the moment. This gives us data on what we enjoy in real time. When we recall things we may mis-remember and think we like/dislike something more than we actually do.

For example, I have been making a short mental note of my favourite activities during lockdown (at the time of writing COVID-19 is still very much an issue and I can’t leave the house except for groceries). Just today, I made a mental note of how happy I was writing these words (7/10!). That was good news, I actually enjoy writing, who knew?

I also made a mental note of how happy I was taking a shower. I had some music on and was really feeling the beat. It’s also cold outside right now so the combination of funky jives and warm water put me at an 8/10. In contrast, last week I had to go to the shops with my wife for some essentials. I normally try to pretend that I don’t hate shopping all that much, and that I can bear it for the sake of my wife’s sanity. But, as I was standing outside a shop, scuffing my feet on the floor out of boredom like a four-year old I asked myself “how happy am I right now?”. I rated myself a measly 4/10! I was hungry, irritable, bored and all round miserable. “Sorry, love” I said to my wife when she saw me, cocking her head to one side and putting her hands on her hips “you know I hate shopping. I’ll try not to make it so obvious!” If I could spend all my time showering and none of it shopping, I’d be the happiest man alive!

How is this practical? I am certainly not advocating that you spend 100% of your time doing things that you like to do. I am also not advocating that you avoid doing the things you don’t like to do. But having the knowledge of what you like more and what you like less gives you freedom. It gives you the freedom to choose, as opposed to bouncing around like a pinball in a machine, whacked around by friends, family, bosses and the circumstances of life. Experimenting with yourself (not like that you freak) gives you the opportunity to design your own life, with intention. For example, my wife loves to shop and I hate it. She’s actually happier shopping by herself! I, on the other hand, love to watch football (soccer), which she doesn’t love – to put it mildly. So, if we communicate, we can design our free time that she gets to shop, I get to watch football and then afterwards we get in some quality time by cooking a meal together. What about those things which you don’t enjoy but are good for you, like running, say. For events like these, the tactic I have outlined can still be useful to choose between options. For example, maybe I hate cycling but love swimming. Perhaps I hate lifting weights in the gym but I can stomach a cross-fit session. By having a better sense of your preferences, which may be less obvious to you than you think, you can choose alternatives that you prefer, even if you don’t love them. Of course, some things may not be enjoyable because that’s their nature (changing diapers or work), and that’s ok. For now, let’s just start by gathering data about ourselves, to make incrementally better decisions. You might confirm what you already knew, or you might learn. Either way, the exercise should make you more mindful, and that’s always a good thing.

For the next week, just 5 times a day, ask yourself this question: “How much am I enjoying this experience?” then, rate the experience on a scale of 1-10 (1 being terrible and 10 being magnificent). If you keep a journal or like to make notes, write down your scores. Otherwise, simply try to make a mental note of things you like more than you realise or things you really despise. This way, you may just find that the things that make you happy are free, cheap, or easy to replicate. For example, when I vacuum the house I listen to a podcast. When I cook, I might dance a bit with my wife. Of course, I burn the food, but I enjoy the experience, because I add something enjoyable to an activity that might otherwise be a chore.

After a week of this, make a note here on what you enjoyed a lot and what you hated. Here is my example to give you an idea.

Things I like to do more than I realised:

1. Dancing in the shower

2. Watching TV with my wife (we frequently talk about what we’re watching, we’re a 2-person peanut gallery, and for some reason I love it)

3. Cleaning the dishes

Things I dislike more than I realised:

1. Shopping

2. Making the bed

3. Working (boss, don’t fire me please)

Your turn,

Things I like more than I realised:




Things I dislike more than I realised:




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© 2020 by Ciaran Burks