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Affective Forecasting: Your Psychological Immune System

Two weeks ago, I went to Minneapolis to see Dr. 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 or 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 mistakes 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, 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. 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. Because of our cognitive biases, we predict that 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 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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If You Want to Be Happy, Expect Less

If you want to maximize happiness and cultivate more inner peace, expect less.

As a teenager, I was stoked to watch An American Werewolf in Paris. I just knew it was going to be edgy and scary – a cinematic masterpiece! What it was, however, was a giant let down. It was a terrible movie. 

Fast forward a couple years, and said movie was on TV. I agreed to watch it with some friends despite knowing how much it sucked. Imagine my surprise when the credits rolled, and I realized that I didn’t hate it. In fact, I had rather enjoyed it the second go round.

Same movie, polar opposite reactions to it. What accounted for the difference? That experience was one of the first that really hit home to me the power of expectations. 

The Power of Expectations

Expectations are internally constructed rules and demands for the future — our whats and hows about upcoming situations, events, even people.

Notice the language: internally constructed. Our brains create expectations, these powerfully adhered to artifacts of imagination; they are not tangible facets of reality or valid parts of our external world. Sure, some expectations are mutually agreed upon and accepted by a large number of society (I expect people to wear pants in public, and I venture that you hold the same expectation). Others, however, are more unique to us as individual expectors, based on our histories, personalities, thought patterns, and wants. Unmet expectations, as in my silly movie example, are frequently the source of angst. Think of your most saddening, maddening, or frightening experiences recently. Think of the times when you felt anything but happy. Were unmet expectations, on your part or someone else’s, at the core of the issue?

Expect Less

A pessimist dressed in a realist’s clothing may say “expect less to avoid disappointment.” Set that bar low. Things either turn out just the way you expected, or you’re pleasantly surprised. 

I agree with “expect less,” though in a different way. Expect less. As in expect less frequently. Set fewer expectations period. Don’t set the bar lower, but rather, don’t set the bar at all.  It is the bar itself, not its location, that is the problem. More precisely, it’s the mismatch of the bar and reality that robs us of happiness. So much of what happens around us and to us is, at least in part, out of our direct control. Yet, we strive to control it anyway. These efforts give us the illusion of control but really just take time and energy, keeping us from being fully authentic in the moment. If the mismatch of expectations and reality is what fuels discontent, and we can’t actually control (at least some aspects of) reality, why not focus on expectations? Those ARE within our sphere of control. Since we can’t always predict or predestine events, trying to match expectations to the unknown future is a gamble, and I, for one, am not willing to bet my happiness like that. If we let go of expectations (or don’t make them in the first place) then we are free to experience things as they happen. While not every moment will be an enjoyable one that we’d like to have continue or repeat, our overall happiness level is less impacted. 

Challenge: Practice embracing some uncertainty. Try to enter into some experiences without imagining or planning how it’s going to go. Try to catch and erase your expectations about someone else before you interact. Let go of those shoulds

Expectations and Relationships

The role of expectations within the context of relationships is particularly interesting to consider. How many times have you found yourself saying or thinking, “I’m mad because I thought you were going to do XYZ?” What you’re really saying is that you’re angry because your expectations and reality did not match. Maybe you’ve been on the other side and found yourself apologizing for someone’s disappointment in you…for something you did not agree to or weren’t even aware was an issue? How was I supposed to know that you expected me to notice that you were quiet because you had a rough day at work? I was too busy setting my own expectations about how this evening was going to go…

Can you imagine what it might feel like for you and your loved ones if we all let go of expectations and worked toward fully accepting each other and ourselves for who and what we actually are?

Challenge: The next time you find yourself angry with someone, check yourself. Did they really do anything wrong, or did they just not meet your expectations? And the next time you find yourself apologizing, ask yourself the same thing.

Wrapping It Up

To a certain extent, I believe that we all set expectations. It’s one of those short cuts that allow our brains to process so much information so quickly and to keep us safe. If I expect that running across the interstate may result in me getting hit by a car, I may take precautions. So often, though, we make so many internal demands that we essentially hold the future hostage. Meet our demands or else!

The saying “It is what it is” sounds like a vague platitude, but it’s more profound than you may realize. It is the essence of letting go of expectations, of meeting each moment as it comes, making room for and accepting the ups and downs of life. It is at the core of being mindful and a key for facilitating your own happiness. I expect that you’ll agree.

“With mindfulness, loving kindness, and self-compassion, we can begin to let go of our expectations about how life and those we love should be”
– Sharon Salzberg
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Connecting the Dots: Interpreting Our Experience

Just as everyone breathed a sigh of good riddance to the past year, 2021 made a dramatic entrance, at least in the U.S., when supporters of President Trump stormed the capitol on Wednesday, adding yet another entry to the List of Unprecedented Events.

Whether we’re talking about disturbing global events or the individual happenings of our daily lives, our minds work hard to interpret our experience and understand our world. They take in tons of bits of data, process that information, and, ultimately, make sense out of it. They do this by filling in gaps to create a cohesive narrative.

Our minds want the world to make sense, so they construct these narratives, or stories, to explain the whys, make meaning, figure out implications, and find some predictability. I call it connecting the dots.

Connecting the Dots

Look at these dots below. How would you connect them?

Great! Now can you find another way to connect them?

Perhaps you automatically saw a house, a star, or a zig zag. Which one is right? How difficult was it for you to come up with some alternatives? 

The Point

These dots represent facts – as close to objective things as we can get – which your mind then links together in a way that helps you understand what is or has happened. Without connecting the dots, we’d feel completely lost!

The issue, though, is that the way we connect dots depends a lot more on our histories, our belief systems, and our subconscious programming than on some objective truth. That’s why two people, even two well-meaning and reasonably bright people, can have very different takes on the same scenario.

While there may not be a right or wrong way to connect the dots, there are certainly different ways. And, depending on how you connect those dots, you see a very different picture…and then you operate in the world as though that picture is an absolutely accurate representation of reality.

What if – just what if – our minds are connecting dots in the wrong way? Or, if not wrong, per se, an unhelpful way? What if there’s a better way to interpret our experiences? What if we struggle to interpret our experience?

And, what if there are a lot more dots that we just can’t quite see? Wouldn’t that make a big difference in the picture? But, because we don’t know what we don’t know, our minds just fill in the narrative despite the missing info.

The stories we tell ourselves (or more aptly, the stories our minds tell us) become our reality. We accept them as truth and weight them like facts, often not realizing that they can be edited, revised, altered, or deleted all together.

A Solution 

Our minds are going to continue to connect dots to interpret our experience, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing this, though, means that you can make your mind do some work for you, rather than accepting its first draft of the story, especially if that draft isn’t helpful for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What story is my mind telling me?
  • What dots is it trying to connect?
  • Is it possible that I’m missing some important information, not seeing all of the dots?
  • What’s another way to connect the dots? Another explanation? Another perspective?
  • Which version is more helpful to me?

This practice of becoming aware of the narratives and working on revising them can have a huge impact! If you’re interested in learning more about how your mind works and how those inner workings profoundly impact your life experience, you may like our ASCEND program. Module 2 is all about your mind…and tools for making it work for you.

But for now, work on being aware that the narratives exist. Notice how yours influence you, and strive to connect dots in more useful ways.

“The world you’re actually in may not be harsh. But the world your mind puts you in can be harsh as heck.”
– Dr. Steven Hayes
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Don’t Fall for This Sneaky Brain Trick

If you’re anything like me, you’re fascinated by how the brain works! I love learning about how our brains process information, the glitches in their programming, and how those natural tendencies influence us in helpful and not-so-helpful ways. Good thing, too, since I’ve spent the last two decades studying this kind of thing!

Distorted thinking patterns and brain glitches cause all kinds of problems. In the context of the upcoming election, though, one in particular stands out to me, and I want to make you aware of it, too, so that we can all work on keeping our thoughts healthy and helpful.

Black-or-White Thinking

A particularly common yet problematic brain glitch is black-or-white thinking, also called dichotomous or all-or-none thinking. Black-or-white thinking shows up when we think in rigid either/or terms. The issue here is that very few things in life are truly black and white. Black-or-white thinking creates false extremes that can lead to all kinds of problems, and it keeps us from seeing the world as it really is.

Take these examples, for instance.

  • “I ate a cookie, so my diet is blown.” What kind of choices are going to be made now, and how do those line up with health goals?
  • “Everyone is better at that than I am.”  What kind of impact is that thought going to have on continued effort and confidence?
  • “You’re either with me or against me.” (Hello, election season.) What’s the effect here on collaboration and effective problem-solving? What about on attitudes and emotions?
  • “If it’s not perfect, then it’s a failure.” How do those unreasonably high standards play out over time?

Are you starting to see how black-or-white thinking can create some problems? It becomes even more clear when we contrast it to more rational alternative thoughts like:

  • “I ate a cookie, but that’s not the end of the world. I can still make healthy choices for the rest of the day and minimize the damage.”
  • “A lot of people are better than I am at this, but I can improve with practice.”
  • “We have a lot of differences, but I bet we can find some common ground to work from.”
  • “No one is perfect. This is good enough.”

 Problems with Black-or-white Thinking

1. Negative effects on your feelings and behaviors 

You’re probably getting the sense that black-or-white thinking can negatively impact your feelings as well as your actions, and it certainly can! In fact, black-or-white thinking can also contribute to broader and more pervasive depression and anxiety, too.

2. Limited choices

Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you had to make a choice, but neither of the options in front of you seemed like good ones? For example: either I tell my friend she’s upsetting me and ruin the friendship or I say nothing and just deal with it. Yikes. Neither of those sounds particularly appealing, does it? Pay attention to this one: Either I send my kids back to school and they’ll get COVID or I quit my job to teach them at home. Again, neither sounds ideal. When black-or-white thinking is determining our choices, we’re limited. We can choose black or we can choose white. Often, though, there are gray choices available. We’re just not seeing them.

3. Relationship damage

When black-or-white thinking shows up in our relationships, bad things happen. Most people are a complex mix of strengths and flaws, of good intentions and mistakes. When we view people in black-or-white terms, though, we oversimplify and filter out important information. We miss out on that complexity and that can cause some damage. Consider, for a moment, what happens if you view your partner in all-or-none terms. Let’s assume your partner did something that he knows you don’t like, and your automatic thought was, “He never thinks about anyone but himself.” How is that scenario going to play out? And what happens if you repeatedly think of your partner in that way? Moreover, what happens when we think about children or coworkers or bosses or even strangers in black-or-white, extreme terms? I’m not seeing a pathway to solid, healthy relationships here. Are you?

Recognizing Black-or-white Thinking

Black-or-white thinking can be sneaky and isn’t always easy to recognize. Fortunately, there are some red flags that can alert you that you are falling into this trap.

Either/or

If you find yourself thinking or saying “either/or” take a pause. This is a signal of black-or-white thinking. Your mind is only seeing two options, and chances are that’s a false dichotomy.

Extreme language

Extreme language is often a sign of black-or-white thinking. Words like always/never” or everyone/no one” signal extremes.

Shades of Gray

When you notice black-or-white thinking, I challenge you to find the gray. You may be able to do that by simply asking yourself if there’s a gray option here. Other helpful questions include:

  • Can it be both/and instead of either/or?
    • For example, can I be a generally successful person who also made a mistake? Can she be both loving towards me and occasionally do things that hurt my feelings?
  • Are there any exceptions? Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of circumstances? 
    • Does my partner really never think about anyone else? Have there really been 0 times that he considered someone else’s needs?
  • Is that conclusion extreme? Could there be another outcome?
    • For example, does eating one cookie really mean that my diet is completely blown? Could it, instead, mean that I practiced moderation and can continue to make healthy choices?
  • What’s a third option?
    • For example, are these really my only two choices? How might I get the best of both? Or what else could I do in this situation?
  • And, one of my all-time favorite, most useful questions…is this thought helpful?

Beyond the Gray Zone

I hope you’ll embrace the gray and make efforts to counteract black-or-white thinking. Keep in mind, though, that changing your thinking patterns is an ongoing process. You’re going to slip into these glitches regularly, and it’s important that you don’t get black-or-white about your success! It’s possible to both make progress on your thinking AND slip into old habits. How’s that for gray zone?

And, if you are as fascinated with the brain as I am, you’ll love our Ascend program, especially Module 2: Your Mind. In this section of the program, we do a deep dive into how your mind works and why it does the things it does. Through the educational videos and hands-on exercises, you’ll learn about different forms of problematic thinking. You’ll get really clear on how your mind works and when it’s helping and hurting you. And most importantly, you’ll develop the skills to turn your mind into your biggest asset. Click the image below to learn more about the program. 

It’s up to each of us to learn how to make our minds work for us, and doing so can have a HUGE impact on your life experience. The gray zone, with its infinite shades, is a freer, more balanced place to live. I’ll see you there!

“Don’t define your world in black and white, because there is so much hiding amongst the greys.”
– Unknown