In his book 'Stumbling on Happiness,' psychologist Daniel Gilbert methodically illustrates a rather hard to believe but difficult to argue with theory: While we all have wishes and desires, hopes and dreams for the future, none of us ever truly knows with any accuracy exactly what will make us happy. In fact, we're often dead wrong in our pursuit for happiness, chasing after shallow things that fail to satisfy while being surprised when we often find solace and comfort where we thought we wouldn't. We've all experienced happiness, and we all think we know just where and how to find it, yet the maps we formulate to try and get there are often a tattered mess, drawing us off course and not leading anywhere towards the principles we hope to find.
But why, exactly, is this? Why is something we think we know so well so elusive to us? The human brain is basically an "anticipation machine," constantly trying to formulate and imagine future scenarios so that it can predict and control them. (Dennett, 1996) People spend a great deal of time thinking about the future: imagining future events, living out their hopes and dreams in fantasy, detailing what will need to happen in order for their lives to go perfectly. The problem is that our thoughts about the future are just as warped by the factors discussed throughout this publication as are our thoughts in the present. When people make predictions about what their reactions would be to future events, they forget that their brains have forged numerous assumptions about what they could never know to reach such a conclusion in the first place. (Dunning et al., 1990; Vallone et al., 1990) This leads to expectations, desires, and goals that are often based more in imagination than reality. As Mr. Gilbert puts it, "Our lives may not always turn out as we wish or as we plan, but we are confident that if they had, then our happiness would have been unbounded and our sorrows thin and fleeting. Perhaps it is true that we can't always get what we want, but at least we feel sure that we know what to want in the first place. ...We know these things because we can look forward in time and simulate worlds that do not yet exist." (2006, p.76-77)
Our imaginations about the future suffer from numerous shortcomings that distort our barometer on happiness:
A) The tendency to project the present onto the future
When we peer into the future, we do so from the perspective of today. We find it difficult to imagine that we will ever think differently, feel differently, or desire differently than we do at the moment. Yet times change, and with every new day, every new experience, so do our perspectives. So when we imagine future situations that haven’t come to pass, we're merely guessing how we might feel, because the mere aspect of having that event occur will alter our feelings and perspectives. We may feel certain we'd be happy in a 30,000 square foot mansion. But if we actually got one, the experience itself might change our perspective. We might discover it to be lonely, hard to keep, and too long to walk. We might find it to be not nearly as self-fulfilling as we thought it would be. We might find that we were just as happy in the 3 bedroom house with the little yard surrounded by neighbors and a park down the street. "Because we naturally use our present feelings as a starting point when we attempt to predict our future feelings, we expect our future to feel a bit more like our present than it actually will," says Gilbert. (2006, p. 137)
B) Our failure to recognize that things will seem much different once they happen