Affective Forecasting: Your Psychological Immune System

Affective Forecasting: Your Psychological Immune System

Two weeks ago, I went to Minneapolis to see April (my co-founder here at Peak Mind), work on some new super exciting projects, and catch up. While we regularly meet virtually, we hadn’t been in a room together in a pandemic. It was SO GOOD to be there and to spend time with her and her family. 

April’s kids are awesome little humans! As is common with little ones, though, her youngest got a nasty cold while I was there. Now, I haven’t been around a sick person in two years and have managed to not get sick myself in that time frame (knock on wood). So when I was hanging out in the dress up nook (read that as close quarters) and her youngest, who was talking to me, started coughing, I just knew I was going to get sick. There was no way I wasn’t inhaling her germs. I immediately pictured the glares I’d get from everyone flying home with a cough. Imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I never got sick. Not a sniffle, not a cough. Nothing. Thank goodness for immune systems! 

We are fortunate that our immune systems don’t just protect us from invading viruses and bacteria. What most people don’t know is that we also have a naturally built in psychological immune system of sorts. Our minds work hard to help us recover from events that throw us off balance. We just tend to underestimate their effectiveness.

Affective Forecasting

As humans, we like to predict things. In this case, we like to predict how we will react to future events in case of certain circumstances. For example, we anticipate how our emotional state we will be when we lose a job/have conflict in a relationship/miss a goal/etc. or how happy we will be when we get that raise/lose that weight/get that recognition/etc. 

We try to forecast the future and our emotional reaction to uncertain events. This is called affective forecasting (forecasting or predicting our feelings, or affect if you’re a psychologist). 

The kicker is…we’re TERRIBLE at it. 

We consistently suffer from affective forecasting errors, projection bias, and we make errors in our predictions. Or, put bluntly, we’re just wrong. While we are generally pretty accurate at predicting the tone of how we’ll feel (that is, positive or negative emotional impact) and perhaps even the specific feelings we’ll have. But we are pretty bad at predicting future emotional intensity and duration of our emotions. 

 In other words, we overestimate how good or bad we’ll feel and how long those feelings will last. We think these events will have a bigger impact on our emotional wellbeing than they actually do. We don’t take into account our psychological immune system and how it will help restore equilibrium. 

I’m sure you can come up with all kinds of examples from your own life. How often have you found yourself thinking, “That wasn’t as bad as I expected” or recovering from the heartbreak you thought would last forever?

In case your own lived experience doesn’t demonstrate this point, we can turn to tons of research. Technical data about both mental health and physical health interact when encountering negative emotions show us the way.  Study after study has shown that people return to their baseline levels of happiness after a number of seemingly impactful events, everything from getting tenure to winning the lottery to testing positive for HIV to getting dumped. Despite our cognitive biases, we predict these events will have long-lasting impacts of a future emotional state…but they just don’t. 

Now, I can understand that this information may not make that much difference for you at this very moment. But think about it. How much do you worry about your future affective states? How much do you pursue or avoid things on the basis that you just know it’s going to dramatically affect your future happiness or misery? For me, I used to worry a lot about losing my vision because, deep down, I was scared (and convinced) that I would be miserable if that happened (I have a degenerative retinal condition, so it’s not a hypothetical fear).

 Then, I came across this affective forecasting research and even a specific study showing that sighted and blind people have similar levels of happiness. While my mind told me vision loss would be devastating forever, science shows that my psychological immune system will kick in, and I’ll be ok if it happens. I find solace in this. I choose to trust science…and myself…over my mind’s predictions. Recognizing that things will likely not be as bad or uncomfortable as anticipated – or if they are that it won’t last forever – opens the door to take courageous actions and to let go of some worry. What would it be like for you if you trusted, too?

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts.”
– Daniel Gilbert

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