Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so. — Gore Vidal
There are few things in life that can sway the emotions of an entire country. The winner of American Idol. The release of a Harry Potter novel. This blog. The presidential election.
And whether you woke up this morning dejected or enthused by America’s decision, one thing is for certain: you’re probably incorrect about how your emotions will remain in the future. For if you think the selected president has made you the happiest person in the world or the saddest, people are very poor at “affective forecasting.”
Affective forecasting (coined by Daniel Gilbert—a professor I might work under in graduate school!) is the ability for people to predict the intensity and duration of their future emotions.
Our brains use the basic paradigm: We want –> We get –> We happy. Not the most complicated formula, but easy to use, which, to human beings, is the most important criteria in, well, anything.
Therefore, we think when we don’t get what we want, we won’t ever be happy. However, study after study reveals that the depression or happiness we get from a certain event (like an election) subsides rather quickly.
Let’s take an example. Imagine that your dominant hand was severed off completely. Most of you probably think your life would be irreparably depressing. Clapping would be rather challenging; it would take you a lot longer to floss; and folding fitted sheets would be dreadful. More dreadful than they already are.
However, your true sadness/happiness after losing your hand depends on two things: (a) the event itself and (b) everything else. For instance, by focusing on the negative aspects of losing your hand, you forget about everything else in life that makes you happy. Friends, family members, videos of kittens, this blog.
At the same time, however, something that makes you incredibly, fantastically forever happy, likely, won’t. For instance, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson interviewed assistant professors and asked them what it would mean to receive or not receive tenure.
Both responded as you would expect: those who received tenure would be the happiest people in the world, and those who didn’t would be found in a corner punching themselves in the face.
However, when the researchers interviewed these same professors years later, both groups—those who actually got tenure and those actually who didn’t—had the same levels of happiness.
So as it seems, people, keep living your lives, remembering the good things, not dwelling on the bad, and, as always, keep telling your friends about this blog 🙂
Wilson, T.D. & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 35, 346-413.
Wilson, T.D. & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 131-134.