Be Careful What You Wish For
Suppose one day the phone rings: An excited voice tells you that you have just scooped the lottery jackpot—$10 million! How would you feel? And how long would you feel like that? Another scenario: The phone rings, and you learn that your best friend has passed away. Again, how would you feel, and for how long?
In chapter 40 (“False Prophets: Forecast Illusion”), we examined the miserable accuracy of predictions, for example in the fields of politics, economics, and social events. We concluded that self-appointed experts are of no more use than a random forecast generator. So, moving on to a new area: How well can we predict our feelings? Are we experts on ourselves? Would winning the lottery make us the happiest people alive for years to come? Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert says no. He has studied lottery winners and discovered that the happiness effect fizzles out after a few months. So, a little while after you receive the big check, you will be as content or as discontent as you were before. He calls this “affective forecasting”: our inability to correctly predict our own emotions.
A friend, a banking executive, whose enormous income was beginning to burn a hole in his pocket, decided to build himself a new home away from the city. His dream materialized into a villa with ten rooms, a swimming pool, and an enviable view of the lake and mountains. For the first few weeks, he beamed with delight. But soon the cheerfulness disappeared, and six months later he was unhappier than ever. What happened? As we now know, the happiness effect evaporates after a few months. The villa was no longer his dream. “I come home from work, open the door and . . . nothing. I feel as indifferent about the villa as I did about my one-room student apartment.” To make things worse, the poor guy now faced a one-hour commute twice a day. This may sound tolerable, but studies show that commuting by car represents a major source of discontent and stress, and people hardly ever get used to it. In other words, whoever has no innate affinity for commuting will suffer every day—twice a day. Anyhow, the moral of the story is that the dream villa had an overall negative effect on my friend’s happiness.
Many others fare no better: People who change or progress in their careers are, in terms of happiness, right back where they started after around three months. The same goes for people who buy the latest Porsche. Science calls this effect the hedonic treadmill: We work hard, advance, and are able to afford more and nicer things, and yet this doesn’t make us any happier.
So how do negative events affect us—perhaps a spinal cord injury or the loss of a friend? Here, we also overestimate the duration and intensity of future emotions. For example, when a relationship ends, it feels like life will never be the same. The afflicted are completely convinced that they will never again experience joy, but after three or so months, they are back on the dating scene.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew exactly how happy a new car, career, or relationship would make us? Well, this is doable in part. Use these scientifically rubber-stamped pointers to make better, brighter decisions: (a) Avoid negative things that you cannot grow accustomed to, such as commuting, noise, or chronic stress. (b) Expect only short-term happiness from material things, such as cars, houses, lottery winnings, bonuses, and prizes. (c) Aim for as much free time and autonomy as possible since long-lasting positive effects generally come from what you actively do. Follow your passions even if you must forfeit a portion of your income for them. Invest in friendships. For most people, professional status achieves long-lasting happiness, as long as they don’t change peer groups at the same time. In other words, if you ascend to a CEO role and fraternize only with other executives, the effect fizzles out.