It seems to make sense that an extreme experience, such as a catastrophic injury, would affect our future level of happiness. But, writes James Clear, the truth is much more counter-intuitive. Research has shown that six months after a traumatic event, people’s happiness levels are about the same as they were before the event.
The inaccuracy of our expectations about how major experiences will affect us is called the impact bias:
Researchers refer to this as the “impact bias” because we tend to overestimate the length or intensity of happiness that major events will create. The impact bias is one example of affective forecasting, which is a social psychology phenomenon that refers to our generally terrible ability as humans to predict our future emotional states.
Moreover, the impact bias applies to positive experiences, such as winning the lottery, as well as to negative ones.
Read why Clear draws the following two conclusions from a study of the impact bias:
- First, we have a tendency to focus on the thing that changes and forget about the things that don’t change
- Second, a challenge is an impediment to a particular thing, not to you as a person
Back in 1971, when my husband and I left our families in New England for St. Louis, where he would attend school and I would start my first teaching job, my mother-in-law hosted a “happy/sad party.” She was happy that we were going to start our new life together, but sad that we were going so far away.
Even though we naturally seek clarity, it’s important to understand that people, including ourselves, can feel contradictory emotions about a single situation or event. In his article for The Atlantic, Julie Beck interviews Jamie Holmes, author of Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, about “the many ways that uncertainty shapes people’s behavior, and what gets lost when people seek clarity above all else.”
I think the reason why ambivalence is just downplayed in general, is because we don’t like ambiguity. We don’t like to think of intentions as fluid or ambivalent and I think they are, far more often than we acknowledge.
In the New York Times, financial planner Carl Richards discusses the uncertainty of a life in which our fortunes fluctuate in relation to the economic conditions of a particular time. He bought a house that appreciated quickly in value, then borrowed against the equity in the house to start a business. But when the economy tanked, his house became worth less than he had paid for it and his business, closely tied to the local economy, floundered as well. But a couple of years later, his life changed again: “He now has superpositive net worth. His relationships are better than ever.”
Richards writes that he has asked himself many times what he did wrong to deserve the bad experience and what he did right to deserve the the better experience. But deserve, he says, is loaded language. It’s a myth that we “deserve” any specific outcome:
For years, many of us have believed this myth. In reality, life is irreducibly uncertain. That doesn’t make us more or less successful or more or less happy. The true joy in life, the real peace, comes when we let go of the idea that we deserve a predetermined happy ending.
Whatever the goal, we can learn to trust ourselves and deal with the reality of uncertainty. And for me that’s become the definition of true freedom.