It never cease to amaze me just how wrong I can get it. So much so that as I get older I make fewer and fewer predictions about how something I have never done is going to make me feel when I do it. There’s just no point in trying to figure it out because I don’t get it right. There are just so many ways it can go, so many emotions to feel that the likelihood that I’ll get it correct is close to zero.
When I started working out again, after I moved on from being an IT manager and began working for GoodLife, I wanted my abs to be visible. Maybe I had been that lean before, but if I had been, it had been years before when I was in high school. So I worked at it. I trained and ate well and projected myself forward into a time when I would have abs conditioned myself to feel amazing about it. And when that day came when I looked in the mirror and saw my abs three things hit me. Initially I had a rush of excitement thinking that I had achieved my goal. After about 15 seconds the excitement was replaced with a feeling of loss. Now what was I going to do? And then came the realization that NOTHING had changed. Big deal, I had a six pack, I was still bitter and unhappy, looking for something that would make me better than what I believed I was.
And that’s the thing about the future. It isn’t going to be much different from the present, particularly if the present is very different from the past. Just because you achieve a goal doesn’t mean the world is any different. It doesn’t mean anything is any different. If you are a 6 out of 10 in happiness you’ll return to being a 6 out of 10 in happiness pretty quickly after you reach your goal.
Human beings are dreadful with affective forecasting. We have no idea what our emotional state is going to be in the future in response to some future event. The best predictors are how we feel right now and how we felt when a similar thing happened; which is probably going to be very similar to how we feel right now.
I’ve known a few people who have had cancer. After the initial shock of being told that they are going to die sooner than expected, their lives went back to normal. I’m inclined to say that the last 6 weeks of my dad’s life were happier than the five years leading up to them. He laughed more, ate whatever he wanted and generally didn’t give a crap about all the stuff that, when we take a real hard look at, doesn’t matter anyway. Maybe my dad was sad, but when I asked him he seemed more concerned about my mom and her future than he did about his upcoming death. He didn’t seem sad, he didn’t really seem to care in a way that I would have imagined he would have cared.
He did remark a few weeks before the end that he was wondering why he wasn’t feeling bad about it, that maybe there was something wrong with him not feeling like there was something wrong. I said maybe he didn’t regard what was happening as anything other than what was always going to happen – rather trite and useless, but my dad was a pragmatist and realized that everyone dies.
For anything other than the most extreme cases – beating cancer, a loved on pulling through a dreadful illness, a child being recovered alive from a kidnapping, etc… – a human beings ability to predict their future emotional state is going to be poor, and this is something that I keep in mind when I am coaching people or talking to them about about training and goals.
I’ve seen it too many times to count, someone believing that the world will be different if they lose weight, gain muscle, do this or that thing, but their world isn’t different. All of them say the same thing after a few months: “I’m glad I did it, but not much has changed.” And this is why, in the fitness industry, there are so many relapses with body transformations – an awful lot of people return to their old habits and regain the lack of health & vitality they worked so hard to shed.
For those who are actually interested in helping their clients, it is best that they take the time to unpack the clients motivation and reframe their expectations in terms of the likely outcome. For example, every person who gains strength will notice that life just gets easier. But very few people seek out the help of a fitness professional to make life easier in the ways increasing strength will make it easier. In fact, most people do not realize the positive impact that a stronger back will have. Picking-up the laundry basket is as hard as it is, until it gets easier, then you will realize how hard it used to be.
Most of the really positive outcomes of improving your fitness are unknown until you improve your fitness. Having low energy is normal until you do the work needed to have high energy. The fog that dulls your thinking is always there until it is gone. The slowness of your digestive system is only noticed after it speeds up when you start eating real food and moving more.
Given that people are poor affective forecasters, to make sticky the changes your client makes, you’ll serve them better by finding-out why and how they ended-up in front of you and by pointing out all the good things they’ll notice that other people have noticed. You’ll help them more by ignoring or speaking very little about the things they believe they’ll enjoy about achieving their goal because they’ve probably got them wrong anyway.