|Psychic by Atomische, Flickr|
A while back, I watched a documentary called This Emotional Life (available to stream on Netflix) that focuses in large part on what makes us happy. One part that stuck with me was about predicting future happiness. Basically, we're terrible at it.
We believe what makes us happy now will be the same things that will make us happy in the future. For example, we feel sad for old people who can't or don't regularly drive, have sex, travel, raise children, or work. I think I'd be miserable if I couldn't just get up and go do stuff whenever I felt like it, but the film showed the elderly experience the same levels of happiness and depression that younger people do. Even though they often see their friends, family, and spouses die, they find happiness in other ways.
Another example they gave was at the gym. They interviewed people and asked them, "If you were deserted in a forest, which would you rather have: water or food?" They asked some people this question before their workout and some after. Can you guess how they responded? Hands down, the pre-workout people said food, and the post-workout people said water.
More recently, I read this NPR piece about a similar topic--that we assume the person we are today is pretty much the person we'll be in the future. Even though we can easily see that we've gone through personality changes--sometimes major ones--up until now, we believe we're done with all that nonsense. And, of course, we're wrong about that too. We will continue to change.
I think back on my life choices, and I have to say I was indeed motivated by immediate concerns rather than an accurate prediction of what I would want or need in the future. If I could do it over again, I might not go to college right away. In fact, I'd probably skip college and go to a trade school. Then again, that's the me of today talking--the me who could use some financial and career stability right about now. But who knows what the me of tomorrow will need?
It makes me dizzy just thinking about it. Of course I'll need food, water, and shelter in my future, but trying to predict anything beyond that is a little silly. When I was 18 and heading off to college, could I have predicted how I'd need to meet my basic needs at age 32? Could I have predicted how I'd need to meet my emotional needs at age 32?
The bottom line is that our environment, our bodies, and all the unplanned events, big and small, shape us into who we are as we go along. As much as we might think we're doing something good for our future, the decisions we make regarding our happiness are made in the present based on who we are and what we want right now.
Stop predicting and start living.