Preparing for sadness is a cause of sadness?

I read something the other day (I think it was a reflection on Stumbling on Happiness which has been doing the blog rounds for the last few months) about how humans are not very good at predicting what will make them happy. Apparently we also tend to overrate how unhappy a certain outcome/event would make us. I agree with both of those ideas. I am especially prone to dreading something and then when it comes along finding out that it’s not so bad.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve had more than one of those moments because in a new job there are so many unknown outcomes (e.g. how will the boss react to this; how will I figure out how to do that). Today though I am especially surprised by how little I care about an outcome that I would have predicted, a matter of days ago, to have me looking for the nearest window to leap out of.

I spent a few really unpleasant days working on an administrative task that was very complicated, very dull, required all kinds of information I didn’t have and all kinds of skills that I don’t possess. Had it crossed my mind at that time that I was going to have to do the task all over again in a couple of days I probably would have cried real tears at my desk. Fortunately it didn’t cross my mind. It turns out that situations have changed and I have to do a fair bit of the work on that task again. I didn’t jump for joy when I found out, but I wasn’t that bothered. Only now that I’m almost finished I remembered how much pain it caused last time, how much joy I felt knowing that I never had to look at it again, and how sad I would have been knowing that this second phase was around the corner.

Therefore, if I don’t predict possible negative outcomes I’m saving myself all kinds of brain-fuss. But are there benefits to predicting negative outcomes? Surely there is a place for risk assessment (and prevention) and emergency response plans in the bigger picture, but do we need these in daily personal life? Does ‘preparing for the worst’ given our limited skills in accurately predicting the worst, help us to avert tumult?

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Daniel Gilbert, Author of Stumbling on Happiness at TED. If you can spare the 21 mins, watch this video.

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