Stumbling on Happiness
Researchers have discovered that when people find it easy to imagine an event, they overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur. Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.
For instance, American college students expect to live longer, stay married longer, and travel to Europe more often than average. They believe they are more likely to have a gifted child, to own their own home, and to appear in the newspaper, and less likely to have a heart attack, venereal disease, a drinking problem, an auto accident, a broken bone, or gum disease. Americans of all ages expect their futures to be an improvement on their presents, and although citizens of other nations are not quite as optimistic as Americans, they also tend to imagine that their futures will be brighter than those of their peers. These overly optimistic expectations about our personal futures are not easily undone: Experiencing an earthquake causes people to become temporarily realistic about their risk of dying in a future disaster, but within a couple of weeks even earthquake survivors return to their normal level of unfounded optimism. Indeed, events that challenge our optimistic beliefs can sometimes make us more rather than less optimistic. One study found that cancer patients were more optimistic about their futures than were their healthy counterparts.
Of course, the futures that our brains insist on simulating are not all wine, kisses, and tasty bivalves. They are often mundane, irksome, stupid, unpleasant, or downright frightening, and people who seek treatment for their inability to stop thinking about the future are usually worrying about it rather than reveling in it. Just as a loose tooth seems to beg for wiggling, we all seem perversely compelled to imagine disasters and tragedies from time to time. On the way to the airport we imagine a future scenario in which the plane takes off without us and we miss the important meeting with the client. On the way to the dinner party we imagine a future scenario in which everyone hands the hostess a bottle of wine while we greet her empty-handed and embarrassed. On the way to the medical center we imagine a future scenario in which our doctor inspects our chest X-ray, frowns, and says something ominous such as 'Let's talk about your options.' These dire images make us feel dreadful—quite literally—so why do we go to such great lengths to construct them?
Two reasons. First, anticipating unpleasant events can minimize their impact. For instance, volunteers in one study received a series of twenty electric shocks and were warned three seconds before the onset of each one. Some volunteers (the high-shock group) received twenty high-intensity shocks to their right ankles. Other volunteers (the low-shock group) received three high-intensity shocks and seventeen low-intensity shocks. Although the low-shock group received fewer volts than the high-shock group did, their hearts beat faster, they sweated more profusely, and they rated themselves as more afraid. Why? Because volunteers in the low-shock group received shocks of different intensities at different times, which made it impossible for them to anticipate their futures. Apparently, three big jolts that one cannot foresee are more painful than twenty big jolts that one can.
The second reason why we take such pains to imagine unpleasant events is that fear, worry, and anxiety have useful roles to play in our lives. We motivate employees, children, spouses, and pets to do the right thing by dramatizing the unpleasant consequences of their misbehaviors, and so too do we motivate ourselves by imagining the unpleasant tomorrows that await us should we decide to go light on the sunscreen and heavy on the eclairs. Forecasts can be 'fearcasts' whose purpose is not to predict the future so much as to preclude it, and studies have shown that this strategy is often an effective way to motivate people to engage in prudent, prophylactic behavior. In short, we sometimes imagine dark futures just to scare our own pants off.