As we ease ourselves back into a life approaching normal, there is a certain amount of pressure to enjoy the activities we yearned for while we weren’t allowed to do them.
But how accurate are we when it comes to knowing how much we’ll enjoy a future event?
Not very, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. When individuals make predictions about their emotional reactions to future events, he’s found they overestimate both the strength and the duration of their feelings.
For example, Barbara Mellers and Peter McGraw at Ohio State University found dieters who failed to lose weight didn’t feel as bad as they thought they would; and women awaiting results from a pregnancy test overestimated how unhappy they’d be if they received unwanted results.
Gilbert also found individuals whose relationships end overestimate how bad they’ll feel two months later.
There are a number of reasons why we make these mistakes.
We focus only on the anticipated event itself; failing to take into account how much other factors will influence our thoughts and feelings at that future time.
For example, because you’ve been socially isolated, when you think about returning to work you may consider only how much you’ll enjoy seeing colleagues again, while forgetting you’ll also face the hassle of commuting, sorting out family before leaving for the office, and having to work to someone else’s schedule.
The research shows we’re very bad at knowing how we’ll feel in the future. We overestimate the impact change will have on us and how long the impact will last; we find it hard to imagine the whole picture; and we allow current feelings and extraneous factors to colour our estimates of future events.
Instead of trying to cling on to a recent past when everything was “normal”, why not focus on what you can enjoy right now? After all, whatever the future holds, you’ll almost certainly find a way of adjusting to it.
The Daily Telegraph