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Humans generally have a good idea of whether something will make us happy or unhappy, but it turns out we’re not great at knowing exactly how much.

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[INTRO ♪].

Sometimes things don't turn out the way you expect them to. Maybe you're excited all month for Christmas and then the day was just ... okay.

Like, not bad, but not mind-blowingly amazing. Or you spend a week dreading that shot you have to get, and then it's not even a big deal. We tend to be pretty bad at predicting how we'll feel about the results of our plans and decisions—it's what psychologists call affective forecasting.

And yet we make major life choices, like who to marry, where to live, and what job to take, all based on what we think is going to make us happy. But if you do find yourself facing an uncertain future, there might be some strategies you can use to make your predictions a little better. We generally have a good sense of whether something will be good or bad for us overall.

Like, no one is suddenly surprised to discover that their colonoscopy was “a thrilling adventure, so can you please schedule another for me.” But people regularly make mistakes about how good or bad something will be, and how much of a lasting impression it will leave on their lives. Take, for example, breaking up with a romantic partner. Most of the time, it's a sad and stressful experience, but people are bad at guessing how awful they'll actually feel.

In one study, researchers recruited 69 college freshmen who were all in relationships and then tracked them for nine months. By the end of the study, 26 of them had broken up with their partners. The team found that before the breakup, people had a good sense of how quickly they'd get over it, but were bad at guessing how they'd feel immediately following the breakup.

Turns out it wasn't as bad as they thought it would be. But what's weirder is that reporting being in love in the relationship made their guesses worse. Being in love made people think the breakup would be much more devastating, but it wasn't as distressing as they predicted.

That's called the impact bias, and it often shows up in studies on affective forecasting. We predict that experiences will be much more intense than they actually turn out to be: good things will be ecstatic, bad things will be traumatic. The kind of narrative you can construct around the event might also be a factor.

For example, one study had 91 people go through a job interview, where they were told the outcome would be determined by either a single person or by a panel of people. They also made predictions of how they'd feel about not getting the job, and reported how they felt after being rejected—which all of them were, given that it was secretly a fake interview. People's reported happiness was lower when they were interviewed by a panel than when a single person made the decision, which makes sense from an outside perspective.

It's easy to put a positive spin on it when there's a single person who can't see how great you are, compared to a whole panel. But the subjects couldn't predict that difference. They all guessed they'd feel about equally bad.

One reason we're so bad at guessing our own future emotions is what's known as the focusing illusion. It describes the idea that, to quote one of the researchers who coined the term, “nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.” Your current context matters a lot when thinking about the future. For example, when people try to predict how they'll feel if they break up with their partner or if they get a bad grade, they focus on those “if”s, but ignore all the other stuff that will be going on in their lives at the same time.

And some studies have found that when you help people think about how life's going to go back to normal by reminding them about all the other experiences they'll have after the event, their predictions get better. There are also ways you can re-calibrate your own emotional barometer to get a better sense of what your future experiences will be like. One option is to use what psychologists call "surrogates," and ask someone who is currently experiencing whatever you are considering.

People tend to dislike using other people's reports to decide how they themselves will feel, because they usually think other people's preferences and experiences are more different from their own than they actually are. But in studies, when people do learn about other people's experiences, their own predictions generally improve. For example, researchers had 220 volunteers make predictions about how they'd feel when watching a funny video and trying a new food.

Some subjects were given a report from either a friend or stranger about how much the other person liked it, while others just guessed without outside information. And it seemed like having the information from another person, whether they were a friend or a stranger, made people's predictions better. Of course, a strategy that works for funny videos and new foods might not translate to more important or controversial decisions.

And I'm definitely not telling you to go ask a random stranger whether you should marry your girlfriend or become a lawyer and do whatever they say. I don't think the ethics boards have approved that particular avenue of research yet. But it might help to keep all this in mind the next time you're worried about the future.

Chances are, even if things go wrong, it won't be as bad as you expect. And when you're feeling like a giant ball of anxiety, that can be kind of comforting. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych!

And thanks especially to our Patreon community for their support. It's because of you that we were able to create this channel in the first place. If you're not yet a patron and want to help us continue providing free science education for anyone who wants to learn, check us out at [OUTRO ♪].