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Imagining the Future and How It Affects Happiness

“It is not that we have a short time to live,” said Seneca in a letter to his friend, Paulinus, “but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest of achievements if it were all well invested.”

Alas, this misplacement of our mental and physical investments is what squanders our ability to live immediately. We think (and worry) about the future relentlessly, imagining the implications of our decisions, how we’ll feel after a big meal, or why our partner isn’t answering our text messages.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores our universal pursuit of happiness as well as our fundamental errors in properly attaining it. Happiness is something that we often strive for, but without a proper understanding of the psychology and science of happiness, it can often feel like trying to find your way around an unfamiliar room in the dark.

Gilbert talks about one unique feature that separates us from other animals:

To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine—ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be. The greatest achievement of the human brain is the ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.

What compels us to think about the future is the workings of our brain—particularly, the frontal lobe. According to Gilbert, it’s the last part of the human brain to evolve, the slowest to mature, and the first to deteriorate in old age. Other animals have frontal lobes, but not nearly as large as ours. They still make predictions, but these predictions are tailored to the present moment to be aware of threats and avoid danger. The predictions of other animals can be seen as quick flashes while our predictions are more like fireworks—rich in detail, depth, volume, and range.

We are compelled, due to our large frontal lobes, to think about the future constantly. Not only is it natural, it feels good to revel in what might be. We imagine what our future will look like based on our past and present experiences, and we use other people’s stories and memories as anchors.

Photo cred: TED

Gilbert shares a fascinating study showing why delaying an event and thinking about what might be makes it more enjoyable:

Indeed, thinking about the future can be so pleasurable that sometimes we’d rather think about it than get there. In one study, volunteers were told that they had won a free dinner at a fabulous French restaurant and were then asked when they would like to eat it. Now? Tonight? Tomorrow? Although the delights of the meal were obvious and tempting, most of the volunteers chose to put their restaurant visit off a bit, generally until the following week. Why the self-imposed delay? Because by waiting a week, these people not only got to spend several hours slurping oysters and sipping Château Cheval Blanc’ 47, but they also got to look forward to all that slurping and sipping for a full seven days beforehand. Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit.”

However, the opposite side to this coin is that we can be overly optimistic about an event happening the way we imagine; when it doesn’t, we’re unhappy and often fail to realize that the root cause of our unhappiness is due to our overly-ambitious expectations, not the disappointment in the actual event itself.

The brain does two things beautifully: it makes comparisons to determine value, and it fills in the gaps, meaning when we have no other information or data to rely on, our minds fill the gaps with something. But Gilbert asserts that imagination has three shortcomings:

  • its inability to fill in every consequence and every detail of a future event (we can’t make totally accurate predictions)
  • its tendency to fill in future gaps with present information (think grocery shopping on an empty stomach or proposing marriage while on the high of shore leave)
  • the future we fear will often not be bad as we imagine it to be (you might fear losing your job, but when that happens, you’ll be able to see it as an opportunity to pursue a career you love)

Our ability to imagine is both extraordinary and unique, but it isn’t perfect—in fact, these imperfections are what lead to bad conclusions or expectations, and worse, we often have a hard time realizing that.

Our desire to compare things is natural because it helps us determine quality. Recalling memories feels like we’re living in that moment again, describing the scenario detail by detail, when really we’re using our present emotions and memories as anchors to describe the past.

At its most fundamental level, trying to predict the future or exercise imagination is ultimately about control. In short, we do this simply because it’s human nature.

Gilbert explains:

Prospection can provide pleasure and prevent pain, and this is one of the reasons why our brains stubbornly insist on churning out thoughts of the future. . . . We want to know what is likely to happen so that we can do something about it. If interest rates are going to skyrocket next month, then we want to shift our money out of bonds right now. If it is going to rain this afternoon, then we want to grab an umbrella this morning. Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on stimulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

How, then, do we properly use our imaginations, comparisons, and recollection of memories properly? How do we avoid the pitfalls of being overly optimistic about future events while staying grounded in what could be?

While there is no simple formula (although there is a “happiness formula” floating around out there), there is the pursuit of deeply understanding the way our minds work, appreciating these unique abilities, learning from our mistakes, and doing what the entire race of our humanity has always done: imagining, stumbling, learning, and improving.

Aside from imagination being one of our greatest gifts, perhaps we underestimate the power of our freedom of choice. We can choose to grow, choose to live anywhere, choose our partners, and choose to learn things at our own convenience. We can choose to understand or we can choose to be ignorant. If we learned to savor this freedom and responsibility, would it encourage us to make better decisions so that our future contains the happiness that we imagine? I hope so.

Meticulously researched, relatable, and often times belly laugh inducing, Daniel Gilbert’s insights into happiness in Stumbling on Happiness are both timeless and timely. Also check out his unmissable TED talk.