Welcome to 2019, a year, I predict, that will be a mixture of highs and lows, peaks and valleys, wins and losses, just like every year that has come before it. And I predict that, when you find yourself joyfully on a high, it may feel like all that lies ahead of you is everlasting happiness and a rosy future , but when you find yourself, joylessly, on a low, it may feel like sadness is inevitable and nothing will ever work out. These feelings are very perfectly normal, BUT, most likely, inaccurate.
Predicting or forecasting how we will feel in the future is referred to as “affective forecasting”, and research shows that humans are definitely NOT very good at it. Our predictions often don’t match our future emotional states.
Dr. Daniel Gilbert is a professor of social psychology at Harvard University who wrote an internationally best-selling book called Stumbling on Happiness. In his book, Dr. Gilbert concludes that, while we do understand what will make us happy or unhappy initially, we are very bad at estimating how intense those feelings will be and how long those emotional reactions will last.
In his research, Gilbert and his colleagues found that, on average, emotional responses to bad events are less intense and more short-term than test participants predicted, and emotional responses to good events are less intense and briefer, as well. You imagine that getting a new car will make your life wonderful, but it turns out to be less life-enhancing than you thought it would be and that delight doesn’t last as long as you predicted. You feel devastated when you lose your cell phone and can’t imagine how you’ll get over that one, but it turns out to be not as awful as expected and the feeling of despair doesn’t last as long as you thought it would, either.
This idea reminds me of the predictions we make after we have “stuffed” ourselves at a buffet – “I’m never going to eat again” is the feeling that we get – predicting that we will always feel as full as we do now. But of course, the next day rolls around and we are hungry again, because that full feeling doesn’t last as long as we predicted it would That is why we are told not to go shopping when we are hungry, because we overbuy due to feeling like that hunger will never go away. We have a hard time imagining a tomorrow that is very different from today.
So, what does this have to do with the life of a student? It can be valuable to keep in mind, as Gilbert says, “Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit. We may learn how to visit it more often and how to stay longer, but the waxing and waning of happiness is natural and inevitable. The waning does not mean we are doing something wrong.” So, when things in our lives take a turn for the worse and our happiness declines, it is a natural part of life, but not a permanent situation.
Likewise, if things are going miserably (perhaps you have ended a significant relationship, missed out on a desired job, had a fight with a close friend, failed an important exam, or you are just feeling “down in the dumps”), you may think “I’ll never get over this, I can’t imagine ever feeling better.”. Understand that you really don’t know how you will feel in the future; in the context of the present moment it is hard to determine how we will feel in the context of a future moment.
We do adapt. We show resilience. Our negative feelings become cushioned by other, more positive events. According to Gilbert, our “psychological immune system” (protecting us against emotional threats the way our physical immune system protects us against physical health threats) will often help us to find the upside and interpret what happened in a positive light (“he really wasn’t right for me”, “I can use this experience of failure to know what doesn’t work and do something different next time.”).
Next time you are going through one of those low periods, one of life’s valleys, remind yourself that, although you are good at a lot of things, affective forecasting is not one of them. It may feel like there is no way out, but know that things are bound to get better.
Take care, and ride through those valleys, knowing that the peaks will inevitably come.
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.