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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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Watch Out for These Red Flag Words

Language matters, perhaps more than you might realize. Take, for example, the scenario you’re running late to meet a friend. When you arrive, you say one of two things

“I’m sorry I was late.” vs. “Thanks for your patience.” 

One signals to both you and your friend that you messed up. Cue guilt for you and irritation for them. The other primes you both for positive emotions like appreciation and respect. Both acknowledge that you were late, but the language used produces very different results

Let’s take another example. You have a hard task to do, and you say to yourself:

“I have to…“ vs. “I get to…

The first leads to dread while the second promotes something else, perhaps gratitude, excitement, or motivation. The second may help you tap into your values and make the difficult task feel more worthwhile. Notice that there’s only one little word that’s different, yet the sentiment changes pretty significantly.

Language shapes out thinking, which, in turn, influences our feelings and actions. That makes language incredibly important. In the 15 or so years that I’ve been working with people within my psychology practice, I’ve learned to pay attention to red flag words.

Red Flag Words

 Red flag words are ones that consistently signal problematic patterns of thinking; that is, thinking that is likely to drive unnecessary anxiety, sadness, guilt, or anger and/or urge you to take unhelpful actions. Training yourself to catch and change these red flags – or at least notice and disregard them – can be incredibly powerful. 

1.     Should

If you’ve been with us for a while (or have ever had a conversation with me) then you may have heard my soap box about should. It’s the Mean Girls of the English language – criticism and judgment packaged as something helpful. Shoulds are expectations, and they are often unrealistic. Even when the expectations sound realistic, though, reality often doesn’t match them, which leads to internal ick. Don’t take my word for it. Pay attention to what happens when you should on yourself or someone else. I can almost guarantee that the outcome is a feeling of anxiety, guilt, or anger. One of the best things I’ve ever done for myself is ban the word should from my mental vocabulary. A handy trick to start with is to catch the should. Then, try to rephrase the sentence with “I want to _____ because_____.” If you can’t accurately and realistically capture the same sentiment, it’s an unhelpful should. Kick it out! 

2.     Yeah but

This red flag signals negativity, specifically a negative thinking pattern called discounting the positive. Our brains are wired for negativity, which makes them really good at noticing all of the problems, flaws, and downsides. Yeah but is your mind essentially honing in on the negative, like a heat seeking missile. How’s this for an illustration: “I just won the lottery! Yeah but, I’m going to have to pay taxes on that free money.” Kind of dampens things, doesn’t it? When you catch the yeah but, follow it up with a but at least. “But at least I’m getting a whole pile of unexpected money, and it only cost me $1 for the lottery ticket!”

3.     What if

What if is a worry. Worry is your mind looking for and trying to predict anything that could go wrong. While helpful at times, the effect is that you feel anxious or worried in the here and now…even though NONE of those potential bad things are actually happening. When your mind starts to throw out those what ifs, I encourage you to respond by saying, “What if is a worry.” Then shift your attention back to the present moment and what is actually happening. If you can’t disregard the what ifs, at least make your mind do some work to balance the picture. For every negative (and they’re almost always negative, aren’t they?) what if, make your mind find a potential positive what if as well. “What if I tell them how I really feel about it, and they get mad?” “Well, what if I tell them how I feel about it, and they listen appreciatively, and we resolve the whole situation?”

4.     Always and Never

Extremes like always and never or everyone and no one signal black-or-white thinking and are another sneaky form of negativity. Very rarely does someone always or never do something, and when you generalize in the extreme like that, you’re creating problems for you and them. Notice how different “You never listen to me” sounds from “Sometimes, you don’t listen to me.” (Better yet, soften it even more with “Sometimes, it seems like you’re not listening.”) Which one is likely more accurate? When you catch the always and nevers, ask yourself, “Is this true 100% of the time in 100% of situations? There are truly zero exceptions?” If not, choose a more accurate word like sometimes/often/frequently or some/many/a lot of people.

5.     I’m just…

I’m just…making an excuse. Just is for justification, which is a fancy excuse or rationalization. It may seem harmless, and frankly, it may be in some scenarios. Other times, however, it undermines your message or keeps you from doing hard but necessary work like taking responsibility for missteps or making changes, especially within relationships. Imagine that a coworker raises a concern about the quality of some work, and you respond with “Well, I was just trying to get the project done before the deadline.”  While that may feel true, it’s coming from a defensive place with the intent of deflecting blame. It does nothing to acknowledge the situation, take ownership, or make a plan to address or fix it. Instead, something like the following seems a lot more helpful: “The deadline was tight, and I felt a lot of pressure to get everything done in a timely fashion. I didn’t intend to sacrifice the quality of my work. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” The dialogue that follows is likely to feel a lot different. Instead of just justifying your actions, feelings, needs, or perspective, try owning them.

As Dr. April and I love to say, your mind can be your most valuable asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose. So watch out for these red flag words and train your thinking to be more helpful and accurate. And if you want to learn more ways to make your mind work for you, check out Ascend, our comprehensive psych strength program.

“Change your language and you change your thoughts.”
 – Karl Albrecht