When we dream of winning the lottery, we imagine that we will always be happy. But what if the way we imagine the future is not reflective of how we truly experience it? The impact bias explores the phenomena whereby we tend to overestimate our emotional response to future changes in our environment.

In this post, we outline what impact bias is, 5 ways it is making you unhappy, and how you can seek to address these issues.

What Is Impact Bias?

It refers to the tendency to overestimate how much future events will affect our mood. We also tend to overestimate how long a given emotion will last as a result of major events in our lives. This is particularly true of extreme events, whether they are positive or negative.

When it comes to extremely negative experiences, this could be down to something Harvard psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert metaphorically describes as the ‘psychological immune system’. If we imagine an extremely negative event in the future, this is unlikely to be triggered. However, in a traumatic event, it is likely to kick in and enable us to take a positive outlook on a seemingly inescapable situation.

When it comes to extremely positive events, if we imagine them, we tend to focus solely on the positive change to our circumstances. However, if we come to actually experience an extremely positive event, our focus will be broader than the extremely positive event.

Events in our daily life, from a rough night’s sleep to challenges in personal relationships, will be in our purview. This is also true of negative events where we may ignore positive aspects of our lives when imagining something traumatic in the future. As such, impact bias is also apparent when we imagine positive and negative events.

“The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another” – Adam Smith, the Theory of Moral Sentiments

How does impact bias make you unhappy?

So what does this all mean for our own happiness? Here, we outline 5 ways impact bias can make you unhappy and what you can do to avoid this.

1. ‘The grass is greener’ thinking

We all like to think that we are good predictors of what will make us happy. However, according to research by Wilson & Gilbert (2003), this is not the case.

We might think that our lives will be improved if only we can get a bigger house, a faster car, a promotion, or a new partner. However, when we seek to predict our emotional response to changes in our future, we almost always fail.

We may invest a lot of time and energy in the anticipation of a new dawn of positivity. Unfortunately, when the moment arrives and we realize nothing much has changed, this can lead to severe disappointment. Being aware that we have a tendency to reach for the next thing indeterminately, can help us learn to appreciate what we have in the here and now.

2. False expectations of wealth & happiness

Similar to ‘the grass is greener’ analogy, much of what we expect of the future never turns out to come true. This is particularly apparent in studies of wealth, such as books like “The Spirit Level” by Katie Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

People often intuitively expect that as their wealth increases, their happiness will continue on a correlative upward curve. However, the spirit level shows how beyond middle-class security, or essentially comfortable subsistence living, the correlation between money and happiness almost disappears.

If we focus too much on money and wealth rather than on what truly makes us happy, we may not be able to recognize the source of our unhappiness.

3. Narrow focus

When we think about the future, we tend to focus on one thing. If we plan a change in our life, we imagine only the change and not everything that stays the same. However, unless we move out into the woods and cut off all contact with society, most decisions we make will only affect a small percentage of our overall lived experience.

As such, when thinking about the future, it is important to try to broaden our horizons. Consciously widening your focus will help you avoid impact bias.

4. Things won’t be as good (or as bad) as you think

If you win the lottery, will you be happy? If your relationship finishes, will you be devastated? Would you never be able to cope with losing a vital sense or a limb?

People may intuitively think that they know the answers to all these questions. However, our intuition may not be as good as we think. Moreover, if we fail to recognize the dominance of one of our competing fast and slow thinking systems, we may fail to reap the benefits of slow thinking according to science.

Equally, when we envision the future, we fail to account for the human ability to make sense of what happens to them. Humans seek to rationalize what has happened and find underlying reasons, whether good or bad. When we do this, we dampen the impact of any event on us, reducing the effect of the good and the bad.

This is perhaps best highlighted by a study comparing the happiness of lottery winners and people who had lost the use of their limbs. A year after each event, the happiness levels of each group were the same.

5. Failing to live in the now

“The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly” – Buddha

We cannot accurately predict our level of happiness (or unhappiness) in the future. Does this mean that any expectations we place on happiness in the future are necessarily a waste of time?

Clearly, our hopes for the future play a positive role in our present mental well-being. Thus, knowing about the impact bias shouldn’t make us stop dreaming. However, it is important to be aware that our expectation will almost certainly not be matched by reality.

Moreover, ultimately, the present is the only experience that exists in time. If we dwell on the past or the future, we often allow the present to pass us by.

Practices such as yoga can help you train the mind to be present in the moment and there are numerous other life lessons you can learn from it. Focusing on enjoying the present is one of the key ways of overcoming the impact bias and stop us from planting seeds for future unhappiness in our minds.

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