This article looks at our pre-occupation with the future and the powerful range of feelings that we experience as a result – from intoxicating excitement to deepest dread. These emotions stem from how we think we will feel should certain conditions be met. Studies suggest that we are generally wrong in these predictions, yet we continue to plough huge quantities of emotional effort into this forward thinking.
Our brains are equipped with an area known as the prefrontal cortex, a mental mechanism that grants us the unique ability, as a race, to simulate emotions prior to an event taking place. If you were to consider the prospect of acquiring a lasting disability, or conversely, the prospect of having your wages doubled, you would probably be confident as to how you would feel, given these eventualities; that would be your prefrontal cortex doing its job.
Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, followed up on a number of studies regarding prediction and found a startling reality – getting what we want (what the prefrontal cortex has given the thumbs up to) tends to not lead to an increase in our happiness. At the same time, getting what we don’t want does not tend to lead to a decrease in happiness.
This is something that has already been known for decades in economics. Most of us labour under the preconceptions that having more money will make us happier, yet repeated evidence shows that any increase in income (beyond what is required to steer us out of poverty) does not lead to an increase in happiness. Despite these facts we are typically quite prepared to continue our pursuit for upward mobility.