How do I stop being predictable

The future cannot be foreseen, but our satisfaction can be - if you follow a rule

People are bad at judging their future happiness or unhappiness. The effects of severe strokes of fate are just as overestimated as lucky coincidences.

At the beginning of 2020 nobody would have dreamed of how we live today. We cannot pursue most of our hobbies, we should meet as few people as possible and we are obliged to cover our nose and mouth with masks. If we had been asked a year ago how we would feel about it, many would probably have answered: Such a life is unbearable.

Sure, it's not nice. But most of them are not constantly devastated, but have come to terms with the situation and find joy in what is still possible.

Humans are biologically adjusted to get used to stimuli and situations - good as well as bad. “The truth is, bad things don't affect us as much as we would expect. The same also applies to good things, ”concludes the US psychologist Daniel Gilbert from numerous research results. In the event of negative events, our “psychological immune system” helps to find a way back to a normal life.

If, after a breakup, the ex-husband suddenly wasn't the right person anyway, our psychological defense mechanisms are usually behind this change of perspective. It was also more due to the subjective point of view than objective facts that he initially appeared to us as a dream man. However, people are hardly aware of how much their inner workings influence the perceived reality. This has serious consequences for decisions.

Too optimistic about positive events

When faced with the decision of whether the new acquaintance could become the next partner, we base that decision on predicting whether that person will make us happy. However, people are poor at making predictions about their future happiness or unhappiness: women overestimate how unhappy the unwanted pregnancy test result will make them; Students overestimate how much moving into the desired dormitory affects their happiness; People overestimate how unhappy they will be two months after a breakup. These flawed predictions can prevent us from making good decisions.

To objectively examine how well predictions match actual changes in satisfaction, research studies compare the predictions of one group, for example people in relationships, with the statements of another group who actually experience a particular situation, people after a breakup.

Using a different approach, Reto Odermatt and Alois Stutzer from the University of Basel evaluated long-term data from over 180,000 people from 1991–2004. The data come from people who were asked annually about their general satisfaction with life and who were also asked to predict how satisfied they will be in five years' time.

The researchers examined how far-reaching life events, such as the loss of a partner, unemployment, illness, marriage, separation or divorce, affect life satisfaction. The result: a strong effect can be seen shortly after the event. Although people correctly predict that the change will not last, they usually underestimate their ability to adapt. Anyone who lost a partner whose life satisfaction was - contrary to their own prediction - three years later was as high as it was before the loss.

It is similar with other significant events, even with paraplegia and lottery wins. One might think that this is due to our lack of experience with such events. But even with everyday and recurring events such as purchasing decisions or the Christmas holidays, our predictions about the consequences are bad.

Other factors play a role. For example, we don't use enough past experiences, such as family quarrels at Christmas, to make predictions. We like to forget that individual events rarely outshine everyday life. Of course you are happy when your favorite football club wins. On the day of the match, you may still be annoyed about your noisy neighbors or the stain on your trousers, so you won't be staggering through the streets all day long.

Satisfaction cannot be permanently improved

In general, life satisfaction seems to depend less on external circumstances than is generally thought. There are numerous indications that our satisfaction with life is to a large extent genetically determined; upbringing and early decisive experiences probably also play a role. However, it is relatively stable over the course of life. Even if only positive things happened to us - one salary increase after the other, one success after the other: Our demands and expectations rise, and what used to get us intoxicated, we will take for granted at some point.

Our satisfaction cannot be maximized in the long term. But the habituation effect can be undermined. The US researchers Ed O’Brien and Robert W. Smith from the University of Chicago and Ohio State University have shown that everyday activities are more enjoyable when they are carried out in new ways. For example: eating popcorn with chopsticks instead of your hands.

We often only recognize our adaptability in retrospect and instead wait for external changes that make us happier for a short time, only to be annoyed again about new things. In a few years time, data will show whether we are also overestimating the impact of the pandemic on our satisfaction. In any case, the latest World Happiness Report shows a remarkable stability in life satisfaction in 149 countries despite Covid-19. In the meantime, we can take advantage of other research findings: Don't wait for the next relaxation. Focus on areas of life that are not affected by the pandemic - they definitely exist. Looking for something new in the familiar. Think not only of our physical immune system, but also of our psychological one.