Aren’t you positively brimming with joy, now that winter has gone? No? Me neither. Yet several months ago, I couldn’t wait for the Ottawa snow to melt and spring to start. Now that it’s here, though, I can’t really tell what I thought was so exciting.
This is because when we imagine the future—like how we’ll feel when spring starts—we tend to only focus on the most salient features of whatever we picture. In a 2005 study, Kent Lam and his colleagues asked Canadians about how happy they would feel when it got warmer, and then measured later how happy they actually were. The Euro-Canadians in the study thought they’d be much happier than they ended up being. (The Asians in the study, though, did not. Evidence suggests East Asian cultures think more holistically, and don’t focus much on just one difference.) In other words, if you only think about the most central feature of a future event, as one is likely to do with an “analytical” mindset, it can distort your predictions about your own happiness.
Here’s another example: Think of your favorite dish at your favorite restaurant. Now imagine that through some contest you win ten free meals there, but you have to choose which meals you’re going to eat right away. Would you choose to have your favorite dish every time? Of course not—we like variety. Yet, according to a 1995 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, people tend to choose a variety whether the ten meals are in the next ten days or once every three months. “It appears that consumers plan much more diversity for themselves than they will subsequently want,” the researchers wrote. “We refer to this as the diversification bias.” People will make bad choices about their future because they don’t really understand the relationship between infrequency and novelty. You’re happiest when you have a variety of something good over a short timespan, or an infrequent amount of the same thing over a longer timespan, but you don’t need both. If you’re eating at your favorite restaurant every three months, you’re probably going to want your favorite dish every time.
We also have problems trying to predict how happy things are going to make us—something psychologists call “affective forecasting.” We think bad things will feel worse than they actually will, and we think good things will feel better than they actually will. For example, we tend to expect to have more grief than we actually do when thinking about some future loss, such as the loss of a loved one. How far in the future we imagine something to be matters, too. If you imagine losing a loved one, for instance, in the next week, you’re far more likely to picture them in a familiar location than if you imagine losing them 5 years from now.
Another thing that tends to happen when we imagine the future: We sacrifice our future selves’ wellbeing so that our present selves can get a break. In one study, people were asked if they’d like to go to a boring lecture across the hall or an interesting lecture across town. If the lectures were tomorrow, they chose the convenient, dull lecture, forgoing the longer trek. But if the lectures were next year, they chose the good lecture across town. People seem to figure they’re too busy tomorrow for a trip across town, but they tend to think they’ll have more free time in the future.
Some people, it turns out, are disposed to be more present-oriented while others are more future-oriented. The latter are less likely to engage in risky behavior such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs; and they’re more likely to do things that will help their future selves, such as studying and exercising. Future-oriented people are even more likely to care about the environment—psychologist Alan Strathman and colleagues showed that future-oriented people were more likely to be opposed to offshore oil drilling.
If you’d like to be more future-oriented, try forcing yourself to think about what you’ll be like 20, 30 years from now. What will you look like? How much money will you have? It might help you see the world from a more future-oriented point of view. In 2011, for example, Hal Hershfield, a UCLA psychologist, and colleagues showed that people become more careful about monetary rewards in the future (taking more money later rather than less money now) when they’re presented with computer-generated images of their older selves.
If you remember to keep in mind the weaknesses we have in imagining the future, you’ll be on your way to aging a bit more wisely.
Jim Davies is an associate professor at the Institute of Cognitive Science at Carleton University in Ottawa, and author of Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe.
The lead photograph is courtesy Evan Kane via Flickr.