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Imagining your future and happiness

Imagine some pasta.  Would eating it make you happy? 

Now picture that pasta in your mind’s eye.  Did you make it a particular pasta?  Perhaps spaghetti?  But why not agnolotti, cavatappi, or gnocchi?  You filled in a picture using your imagination, putting things there that were not in my description. And what did you leave out?  There are likely to be things going with the pasta you didn’t imagine.  Perhaps the jackhammer pounding away outside the restaurant or the pennant race you’re thinking of as you eat?

Our last happiness class we discussed imagining our futures–the ways we fill in for our blind spots, thinking of what we think must be there in the future even thought it likely will not.  The ways we miss things that actually will be there.  That process can lead us to mispredict how happy we will be.  College students asked to imagine how happy they will be days later if their football team wins (this was not done at AU!) or how sad if they lose overestimate how much effect the football game will have.  They’ve missed the equivalent of the jackhammer outside the house of pasta.  Perhaps after a win they have to study for an exam.  After a loss they spend time visiting with friends.  There’s more in your future than is dreamt of in your philosophy or imagination, Horatio. 

Except if they asked people to describe their typical day. That likely helped people realize that there was going to be more going on.  They certainly stopped overestimating the effect of the football game as they realized the complexity, messiness of any day.

Football.  That’s not so important, now, is it?  (Hey, my fantasy team was crushed over the weekend.  I need to rationalize.) Surely for more important things we get it right!  Well perhaps not. Some people being tested for HIV were asked how they would feel weeks out if they found out they were positive and if they found out they were negative. They overestimated the effect of finding out the results of the test.  There were the supportive friends they’d not imagined when thinking of testing positive. There were the dust rhinoceri and bills they had not imagined when thinking of testing negative.

How much of our unhappiness comes from our imagining a particular future will make us happy, but then ending up with something that doesn’t match our imagination?  If we could better predict what we are actually choosing with our lives–what our spouses, jobs, communities, children will be like–would we be happier?  In coming blog posts I’ll write more about how we are led astray in our predictions.

If you’re taking my class, you might stop reading now.  I’m going to drift way into speculation-land for a bit.

Today’s my birthday. (Thank you for the good wishes!)  And there is no way I could have imagined that this would be my day, that this would be my life.  (Dang it, I’m not playing shortstop for the Cardinals!)  And despite the mismatch of the carrot toward which I have long been working and the one with which I’ve been presented I’m pretty danged happy. 

When I think about the work I described above the moral is to predict better what the future might be like–“Ah, it’s the gnocchi!  Please yes, let me have it–I had foolishly thought it was ziti, and that’s why I was poised to reject it!”  And getting better at predicting the future is a dandy thing. 

But how much of the point is that we just won’t predict acccurately what we will get, regardless of our efforts to become better forecasters.  And that there might be ways of being happy with that. Do we too often have the pasta of our imagination in our heads and when presented with the pasta of reality refuse to enjoy it?  (Dang it.  Why did I choose food examples?  Now I’m hungry.)  My life is empty of so many of the things I had imagined growing up, or when in college, or…well, you follow.  But it’s so full of things I had not dreamt of.

I’m thinking back to a post from a couple weeks back when I wrote about American English  being one of the few languages in which “happy” does not carry with it some sense of luck.  Does the American penchant for thinking that happiness is ours to pursue rather than ours to stumble upon cause problems?  Maybe it leads us to demand that the waiter bring us the food we want (and sometimes perhaps that is a good thing) but miss the delight of the food that surprisingly ends up on our plate? 

Imagine that.

 

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