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Psychologyisms: Predicting Our Own Feelings - Do We Really Know What Makes Us Happy?

Updated on April 3, 2011

Is Self Predicting Accurate?

Did you ever wish you had a crystal ball, psychic powers, the ability to foretell the future?
It appears that none of us have these skills, so scientists have been studying how people make predictions, which influence their decision making. An important part of predicting is based on a person’s ability to anticipate  their own feelings.

Emotions are an inexact science. Happiness is elusive. Predictions are usually not remembered accurately. In reality we are not very good at knowing how we will feel after an experience. We want our predictions to help us pursue a higher level of happiness.

We think we know how we will feel.   Some people think they will feel worse than they actually do, or predict they will feel better than they actually do in pre thinking about a given event.. In 1998 a study was done on college professors and how they thought they would feel after they got tenure, or if they were denied tenure.  The study surveyed the professors many months after the tenure decisions and found no difference in happiness levels for the faculty who were given tenure from those denied tenure.   

People Naturally Overestimate the Strength of the Feelings

It is called affective forecasting error, and although not well understood, it appears to be a universal aspect of personality.  It comes from the negative and positive events that have affected a person from their past.  People naturally tend to be bad predictors of their own emotional reactions to events in the future. We usually overestimate the length and the strength of the feeling, especially when the events are negative.

In the Nov 2010, Journal of Experimental Psychology General,4 studies did a comparison of actual to predicted feelings using 4 different settings. With all the studies, the people who were part of the study incorrectly predicted how they would feel and could not recall their predictions accurately. It showed that people were basing the recall of their predictions from their current feelings.  The findings showed that people have difficulty remembering what their initial prediction about their feelings from the occurrence.  Because people can’t accurately recall what they predicted, it is difficult for people to learn to improve their predictions in the future.  Studies suggest that we tend to remember our past experiences more closely matching our prediction, even though we are inaccurately recalling how we thought we would react.  Studies have shown this happens in nearly all our predictions from vactions to elections to anticipated meal, people predicted they would have one reaction and then didn’t realize they didn’t anticipate correctly. They all thought their predictions matched the actual reactions.   So we can’t learn from our past predicting errors, if we don’t think we made any errors in predicting.  It appears that their current state of thinking affects their recall.  In some studies people were reminded of their prediction errors, they actually started to question their own thinking and intuition, which caused them to modify their future predictions.   

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What are the Factors that Influence Our Feelings?

One reason we misjudge our self predictions regarding our emotional response is the personality factor. Whether we are natural disposition tends to be more negative or positive has a great influence on our predictions. Two psychological scientists did a research study in 2008, and found that we don’t account for our individual personalities when we think about our reactions to a future event. They termed this “personality neglect” They found that the actual feelings people experienced were better predictors of how they would feel about a future occurrence, than their own predictions. People who tended to be grumpy forgot to factor this feeling in, and may overestimate their happiness reaction.

Happy people thought they might feel worse than they really did when asked how they would feel if the future event wasn’t what they wanted. As an example, one of the researchers said “Think about planning a vacation, for example. If you have a happy disposition, you probably don't need to waste a lot of money and effort finding the perfect location (because you will be happy with most vacations anyway). By contrast, if you have a less happy disposition, you might be more prone to regret the slightest annoyance, so carefully planning every detail of the trip might be the best strategy for your future happiness. Another reason is that people don’t or can’t anticipate the other factors that influence our feelings. Factors, such as emotional or lack of emotional support from others, our own psychological resiliency, and the environmental influences that surround the event.

Our Current State of Happiness Affects the Accuracy of Our Predictions

In a study done with 40 undergraduate college students, they were asked to write down an important purchase they thought they might make before the end of the semester. They were asked to make a prediction about how happy they thought they would be if they made the purchase and if they didn’t buy it. They were also asked how to predict their happiness level a week after the purchase. At the end of the semester, the participants were contacted for a follow up survey. They were reminded of the purchase, asked if they actually maed the purchase, and questioned about their overall happiness. They were then asked to recall their predictions at the beginning of the semester. The results of the research showed that they overestimated how the purchase affected their overall happiness. They predicted at the beginning of the semester they would be happier if they made the purchase. At the end of the semester their own self reported happiness was not dependent on the purchase. People who made the purchase, overestimated their happiness level and people who did not make the purchase, underestimated their happiness level. The study showed people focus on their current state of happiness in making judgments about how occurrences affect them in the moment.

Towards the Pursuit of Happiness

People who are emotional shoppers do this all the time. They will buy something with the anticipation that it will offer some happiness.  Often, the piece of clothing hangs in the closet unworn, and the gadget goes unused.  Marketing professionals know this. Advertising plays into our thinking about our anticipated feelings from purchases and what we think will make us happy.

We believe in our pursuit of happiness and buy into the idea that if we can accurately anticipate our reactions and feelings, we will achieve a higher level of contentment. Predictions are problematic for us. We can’t accurately predict which events will make us happy, we don’t really know how long we will be happy for, and we don’t know to what extent the event will make us happy. Research studies have shown, we have consistently miscalculated what we thought the actual effects would have on us. We also can’t remember accurately what we thought, and so we don’t learn for future predictions. Studies have proven that it is our current state of mind more than any other factor that determines our state of happiness. Our own predictions are not reliable to predict future feelings. We can’t seem to retain what we predicted in the past, which hinders are ability to learn better for the future. Perhaps the best thing we can learn from all this, is to live in the present. Our lives are best lived, our emotions are best perceived, and our happiness is best judged right now, this very moment. All we have is today, let’s enjoy.

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    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Pam, you are absolutely right. We lose focus on who we are and what makes us happy perhaps because we listen to outside influences instead of ourselves. I am glad you liked this hub. Thanks for all the up ratings.

    • pmccray profile image

      pmccray 6 years ago from Utah

      I don't think too many know what really makes them happy. All too many listen erroneously to outstide stimulus as to what SHOULD make you happy as a functioning person in this society. Our media is geared to make you want . . . big homes, expensive cars, clothes, homes and something pretty on ones arm serves as a gauge reflecting if you've made it or not.

      Reflective hub, very well presented, voted up, marked useful.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Fay, Thanks for stopping by. It shows that our attitude is what makes a difference, not the materialistic and external things we sometimes focus on. Thanks for the up votes, I appreciate it very much. In fact, it makes me happy.

    • profile image

      Fay Paxton 6 years ago

      Excellent article highlighting the different sources and levels of happiness.


    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Micky, Thanks for stopping by. I am glad you are back in town.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 6 years ago

      Very nice hub toknowinfo. Thank you dear.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi GR, you got the article exactly. Thanks for stopping by and adding your contributions.

    • profile image

      Germaine Reilly 6 years ago

      Some interesting insights on our feelings towards happiness. My understanding is that the same event on different days can elicit different levels of happiness, there are just so many other variables to consider, and material happiness is one of the more transient emotions, difficult to pin down and quickly evaporates.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Fossillady, It is always nice to see you. I too am a big believer in therapy. In predicting our feelings, it really depends on our state of happiness and our mood when the event happens, and we are usually incorrect about our predictions because we don't consider our overall state of happiness, we tend to focus on the event or the object, believing that determines our happiness.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Betty, Glad you stopped by. That is what is so interesting about this article. We can't remember that we were wrong about our expected feeling so we never learn for the next time.

    • Fossillady profile image

      Kathi 6 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

      I believe we are happy by nature and the other feelings of sadness, anger, fear, all have a role and can interrupt our most intrinsic feeling...but then again, I am a true believer in therapy, we all need a little help at some time in our lives to examine the patterns from our childhood and truly be educated about our own feelings. As far as predicting our feelings, I suppose that is another question entirely and it's interesting how far off we can be!

    • Betty Johansen profile image

      Betty Johansen 6 years ago

      A very useful hub, especially when it's time to make a buying decision. I never realized how different our feelings can be from what we expect. Thanks for the info.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi KKG, I agree, I could tell you some unbelievable stories. Thanks for your input.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I find that men, at least those in my life, seem to over-react more than the women. We seem to have a better handle on our emotions.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      You always have a great philosophy Amillar, and I enjoy knowing about it. Thanks for stopping by and for the up rating.

    • amillar profile image

      amillar 6 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Let's enjoy what we have today - as you say.

      I found the essence of what you say here to be true some time ago. I remember thinking at the time that it might be similar to post-natal depression. So I called it post-buying depression.

      I'm too mean to spend money now so I don't suffer from it anymore.

      Up and useful.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 6 years ago

      Hi Mentalist,

      Thanks for your comments. I think we women handle situations better than men, because we have more white matter in our brains than men do. You have more gray matter. White matter helps conduct communication more efficiently. Perhaps women communicate better within ourselves and to others and that might be what helps us manage the feelings better. I know my brain never shuts up. I am always having conversations with myself within my mind.

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      As a male,maybe common,I tend to under-estimate my emotional reaction,and maybe falsely,feel that women expect the unexpected emotional reaction to situations,thus handling it better in overcoming emotional swings.;)