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Looking at the future

In Stumbling on Happiness (you'll have to forgive the multiple posts on this one book) I am currently reading of what we tend to leave out when we look at the future. We tend to generalize, simplify, the further in the future we look, rather than imagine details. Interestingly, Gilbert (the author) notes a few experiments in which all of the subjects reacted differently from how I did. Here's one:

Imagine how you will feel two years after the death of your oldest child.

As soon as I read that sentence I considered the implications of the two years, how the time would have helped soften the loss, how I might have adjusted at some level to the loss by then. By contrast, all of the experimental subjects said "what? Are you kidding? I'd be devastated!" As if the death had occurred that day.

Similarly he notes how many people will commit to a future action without "seeing" the details of that action. Like saying sure, I'll babysit next month, having warm and fuzzy thoughts about the concept of babysitting without any thoughts about the minute-by-minute details. I am very careful about this type committment for that very reason, that I do think of the details. I put myself into that day and think how my life will be affected. It isn't abstract to me.

I suspect I am unusual in this sense, and I suspect this is so because I have consciously focused on seeing things clearly, whether they are right now or way off later. What will it mean if I take this class in throwing pottery? I will be getting up that morning, thinking about the time I will spend at the class, about how I might ask questions of the teacher, how much time I will spend in the car getting there and coming home, and so forth. It may be that I have gotten rather too good at this because I tend to refuse a lot of opportunities!


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 5th, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC)
Please don't think too much about the death of your oldest child. She doesn't like thinking about you thinking about it.
Jan. 6th, 2008 02:29 am (UTC)
Trust me, I'm keeping it in check. I do not like thinking of such things either.
Jan. 18th, 2008 10:06 pm (UTC)
I wonder why he says 'oldest child'. Does he think that to lose the oldest child is more devastating than to lose a younger one? Why not just say 'child'?
What is his purpose in asking the question, anyway? Losing a child is as far from happiness as I can imagine. Nor is there any way that it could lead to happiness.
Jan. 19th, 2008 02:31 am (UTC)
The reason he brought up this particular scenario was to illustrate that when you pose a question like this people will usually guess wrong about just how happy or unhappy they will be in the future. He chose a devastating event that anyone would expect would be crushing - but he asked how people would think they would do two years later. Most people thought they would be just as devastated two years later as they were on the day it happened. But when you ask people who have in fact been through it that isn't the case.

The point is that we don't do a good job guessing at our own happiness (or unhappiness) levels in the future. It isn't that losing a child leads to happiness. It is just that two years later people tend to have adjusted better than they think they will.

And as for "oldest child" I think he just wanted to make it specific so you could imagine it better.

The book is very much different from what you might expect and I do recommend it. It doesn't tell anyone how to be happy. Instead, it explores how our minds and memories work and how that affects our state of being.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


Judith Lautner
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