Do the things we long for make us as happy as we expect?

There are a number of reasons why we make these mistakes. One is that, when estimating, we focus only on the anticipated event itself; failing to take into account how much other factors will influence our thoughts and feelings at that future time. For example, because you’ve been socially isolated, when you think about returning to work you may consider only how much you’ll enjoy seeing colleagues again, while forgetting you’ll also face the hassle of commuting, sorting out family before leaving for the office, and having to work entirely to someone else’s schedule.

We’re also influenced by our current circumstances when estimating how we’ll feel in future. Gilbert found, for example, if participants shopped when they’d just eaten, they underestimated how much they’d want ice cream later in the week.

Extraneous factors can also influence our estimates. When David Schkade at the University of Texas and Daniel Kahneman at Princeton asked students at Midwest and California universities who they thought will be happier, almost everyone said California students must experience greater wellbeing, because they assumed objective factors such as the better weather and greater cultural opportunities were key. Yet when asked to estimate their own level of life satisfaction, students at Midwest universities were just as happy as those in California.

Taken together, the research shows we’re very bad at knowing how we’ll feel in future. We overestimate the impact change will have on us and how long the impact will last; we find it hard to imagine the whole picture; and we allow current feelings and extraneous factors to colour our estimates of future events. 

Instead of clinging on to memories of a time when everything was ‘normal’, why not focus on what you can enjoy right now? 

After all, whatever the future holds, you’ll almost certainly find a way of adjusting to it.        

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