Why Are We So Bad at Predicting What Will Make Us Happy?

In past RBJ columns, we discussed why the absence of burnout does not equate to the presence of wellness. There should be more to the radiologist's professional life than simply getting through our workday until the weekend or to our next vacation. The ultimate goal should be to flourish, not just function.

And in fact, flourishing has been the goal for ancient philosophers and is really what Aristotle meant when he famously said:

Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

This time around, I ask you to look beyond the desire to be happy and consider what it means to be happy.

The answer is a little less obvious, isn’t it?

That’s because many use the word “happiness” incorrectly. They think of it as a transient emotional state—“I was happy over the weekend, but now I’m sad” or “I will be happy next week when I am not on call.”

The word that Aristotle and others used for happiness was eudaimonia. This is best translated as human flourishing, a state of thriving or optimal living over a period of time.

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human flourishing and has begun to delineate an evidence-based roadmap to increase our well-being.

The field also has uncovered some landmines for us to avoid along this path.

One landmine is affective forecasting, which is the study of what will make us happy.

I use the words happy, wellbeing and flourishing interchangeably but am really referring to a state of fulfillment and balance in all areas of our lives over a period of time.

What Is the Most Challenging Part of the Physicians’ Job?Affective forecasts are really important because being able to accurately predict what will make us happy—and to know for how long—is the basis for most of our choices in life.

Choosing our spouse, our career as radiologists, what other goals to pursue—all these are largely based on how much happiness we think such decisions will bring us.

What the research is showing is that we are not very good at this prediction.

We want to be happier, living a life of flourishing, but we often chase both the wrong things and the wrong paths to get to them.

Even more disturbing is the fact that we are often disappointed when we get the very things we think we want.

We are generally pretty good at predicting whether something is going to be pleasant or unpleasant. We are lousy, however, at predicting the intensity and duration of our future emotional reactions to this event.

In other words, we can correctly predict that making partner in our physician group will make us happier. Where we go wrong is predicting how much happier we will feel and how long this happiness boost will last.

We also overestimate how bad we will feel when considering a negative event in the future. This error is called impact bias and has been found to occur repeatedly in a variety of populations and contexts.

In recent research projects, college students overestimated how happy or unhappy they would be after being assigned or denied to their first choice dormitory, couples routinely overestimated how unhappy they would be three months after a breakup, and untenured college professors overestimated how unhappy or happy they would be five years after being denied or granted tenure.

Impact bias is a problem for us because we may actively chase or avoid an outcome that in the end will not optimize our wellbeing.

For example, if we overestimate how much pleasure we will get from purchasing a new car, we may be better off spending our money in a different way. 

As an aside, research has clearly established that money can buy you happiness as long as you spend it on experiences rather than possessions.

Like many findings in psychology, there is an evolutionary advantage to impact bias: It serves as a huge motivator, making us work extra hard to obtain things we think will be really great and avoid things we think will be very bad.

What the research shows is that, in general, things or outcomes that we chase are not as good or as bad as we think they will be.

What is the Most Rewarding Part of the Physician’s Job?

The good news is that we can use impact bias to our own advantage.

Stated another way, we can still pursue meaningful goals in our life. We just need to adjust our expectations, whether we’re aiming for a leadership position in our department, a new hospital contract to expand our group or a bigger house to accommodate our growing family.

Recognizing that impact bias is at work, we can realize that achieving these goals would be great—as long as getting there doesn’t mean bending the rules, treating people poorly or neglecting other important aspects of life.

We can focus on the journey of personal and professional growth rather than become fixated on a destination which we know won’t live up to its hype.

Simply stated, keeping impact bias in mind can give us the freedom to pursue valuable things while not neglecting that which we should value: our character, our relationships and our actions.