The human body is a pretty amazing system—if you just take a minute to think about how intricately we are built, it is pretty awe-inspiring. From our basic biological system to our complex thought-processes, we are wired to survive. However, some of the tendencies that may help keep us alive can also have a negative side, and make it harder for us to focus on the good, make the most of positive experiences, and focus on what is going well in our lives.
One truth of human nature is that we have an amazing ability to adapt. Our bodies are wired to maintain a steadfast status quo. This is great when something bad happens (the old adage time heals all wounds has some definite truth in it), but it means we adapt to positive experiences as well. Something new and exciting quickly becomes familiar and commonplace. We do this with material items as well as people and experiences. When I first moved into my house a few years ago, I walked around every day and commented on the beautiful hardwood floors, big windows, and lovely greenery. Within three months you could hear me complaining about how the floors squeaked, the windows let in cold air, and the greenery was making me have allergies. This is such an accepted phenomenon that we have a term for it in our relationships: the “honeymoon phase.”
We have a natural negativity bias – it is easier for us to see what is wrong than what is right. This vigilance to negativity and threat is adaptive when you are fighting for survival, but for most people, that negativity bias just means that you walk around feeling frustrated more often than you feel joyful. How often do you go home at the end of the work day and tell your families or friends about all of the awesome things that happened to you that day? Do you talk about the amazing sunset you saw on the way home from work, the nice coworker who held the door for you when your hands were full, or the stranger who complimented your shirt on your way back from lunch? If your answer is frequently, kudos to you! But most of us tend to go home and complain. We complain about the traffic and the idiot driver who cut us off on our way home, the coworker who finished the last of the coffee and didn’t start a new pot, or the stranger who blocked the whole sidewalk and gave us a mean look when we asked them to move. It is so natural to focus on the negative, we hardly realize it is happening.
Affective forecasting refers to our ability to forecast how we will feel in the future, or how other people will feel. And it turns out that we are pretty bad at it. We focus on the wrong features of the situation, considering only the good, essential aspects and ignoring those other little realities. I recently brought up affective forecasting in a talk I gave on awe. Awe is one of those emotions particularly susceptible to these human tendencies, since a large part of feeling awe is seeing something as new and novel. But we have ways to cultivate more awe all around us, we just rarely take advantage of them. We don’t realize how good it will feel to take a hike to the top of a mountain when we are tired and staying at home sound so much nicer. I put off watching the Planet Earth documentaries for a long time because I prefer plot-driven shows. Then we bought a big screen TV and I got it as a gift for my husband, and I loved it. I felt so much awe and was so entertained watching the documentary. My affective forecasting was so far off the mark, I nearly missed out on a great low-cost, awe-inspiring opportunity. Our bad forecasting keeps us from making good decisions in the moment and over the long term. We think moving into a new house, a new city, a new job, will solve all of our problems. But we forget that most of our problems are inherent to who we are and will follow us wherever we go.
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