This is the second half of the post Affective Forecasting – Post Revisited.
So what can we do to improve our ability at affective forecasting other than the things that have already been mentioned in part one? That’s a good question that I’m going to try to answer, along with suggesting an alternative to trying to predict future emotional states.
In my original post, I mentioned the lack of lasting happiness that was associated with my getting visible abs and I related similar experiences that my clients reported when they achieved their fitness goals. The achieving a goal was a fine experience, but the physical transformation had no lasting impact on the level of happiness or satisfaction that was experienced. We all returned to baseline very quickly, as regression to the mean predicted would happen. The only technique that I had found to be effective that promoted a lasting happiness or sense of accomplishment / satisfaction was to anchor the negative feelings they had at the beginning of their journey and to trigger these feelings later on to remind them what it used to be like or to create a perceptual contrast between then and now. This is a trick though, it isn’t anything more than a thought experiment that generates a sense of gratitude that things are no longer the way that they used to be. It’s powerful, it’s effective, and it can keep people going when they’re not sure the effort is worth it but it doesn’t actually change the baseline. It improves affective forecasting in so far as it gives the person the ability to predict gratitude and its associated happiness and then trigger it in the future to give them the sense that they were right about their prediction.
The truth is that human beings have NO idea why they do what they do, think what they think or want what they want, or if they even want what they think they want. We are, in a word, clueless about these things. And that is fine. Does a dog suffer an existential crisis because it didn’t get the $30 food? No, it eats what it is fed and then tries to get its owner to play fetch or whatever activity brings it the most reward. Cats don’t care that they get adopted by low energy people, or high energy people, or people who do laundry on Friday evenings. They just live their life dealing with what they have to and taking whatever steps they need to in order to continue to live. So long as they aren’t being harmed and are being looked after relatively well they stay with their owner and do whatever cat things their brain has them do.
Human beings are not as wise as dogs or cats. Almost every moment of our life is an existential crisis and the source of agony. It doesn’t need to be that way, it is just that way because we choose to do the things that cause it to be that way. We suffer simply because we have not accepted that our brain controls EVERYTHING and that conscious awareness is an unintended consequence of having a large brain and that consciousness itself is just another unconscious mental process that happens to manifest itself as awareness. We over complicate things believing that we are in control of what goes on under the surface and then suffering when reality has our experience regress to the mean and our baseline level of function returns. Approaching everything with an inflated sense of optimism that the next thing we do will turn out perfectly, we repeatedly get returned to “fine” or “okay” after a moment of satisfaction.
It is probably a good idea to consider the possibility (reality) that life was not meant to be any better than it is right now. While our health and life span has never been so high or so long, there is nothing to suggest that we are any happier now than we were a hundred years ago. Things are improving across the planet, food insecurity and personal safety are concerns of a decreasing number of people, more of our species has clean water, electricity, plumbing, and equality of opportunity is being granted to more and more people in a growing number of countries. Life is easier and per capita each individual has more than at any other time in the history of the human race. But there is no indication that we are any happier. And this moves us to the final section of this post.
If we are not very good affective forecasters and if having more things, more money and a life that is easier than before does nothing to improve our level of happiness, is there anything that we can do to improve things?
The reason why I suggests a 98% certainty that any prediction a person makes about their future emotional state will be incorrect is because there are a couple of ways to actually improve things. They all amount to the same thing, taking steps to change your baseline so that when things regress to the mean they go to some place that is slightly different than before. Will this make us better affective forecasters? No, but it might make life a little easier to experience and it may allow us to have better connections with other people.
There is a Buddhist saying that goes something like “where your attention goes, your mind will follow” that represents the first step in changing your baseline. The brain is programmed to make sense of everything it comes in contact with. It can do this by actually making sense of it, by unpacking what it means, what is it, how it came to be, how it works, and so on or it can do it by ignoring it. The fact of the matter is that most of the time it takes the path of least resistance and ignores everything. It takes effort to learn things and it is emotionally discomforting to not be certain about things – critical criteria for opening up and allow new information in. It is important to accept that the better your store of information and the higher your amount of practice, the better your processes will be and the greater your predictive accuracy. This will allow you to live a life with more ease and it will allow you to spend less of your time in a state of uncertainty, confusion, denial, or having to deal with being wrong. All of these things have a negative emotional valence to some degree. While this does not automatically equate to a greater level of happiness, it is very much like the contrast happiness made possible by anchoring a negative feeling from the past and reminding someone that their life is no longer like that. It’s a start if nothing else.
But it is an important step in the right direction. Knowing things is helpful when making decisions and it comes with a bonus in the form of the chemical reward that is released by the brain when it matches a pattern or knows the answer to a question. You’ll never go wrong when you learn something that is true.
The formula here is very simple, pay deep attention to the things that matter to you and that you want to learn. Practice doing them often and over a period of time, always paying deep attention to what is going on, and your brain will do the rest. It will lay down the brain tissue to support the new knowledge and it will create the unconscious mental process that supports implementing the new information in useful and prescribed ways. Pay attention, practice consistently over time and your brain will grow in response to the stimulation. It’s just that simple, although it isn’t easy. In fact, it can be hard work and you are not necessarily going to feel like doing it all of the time. Do it anyway.
But what does it mean to pay deep attention? Well, it means being aware of what is going on in your brain and body while you are practicing. It means cultivating a keen ability to concentrate on things that are not necessarily obvious or innately rewarding. It means gaining the ability to quickly identify when your mind has wandered and to then shepherd it back onto the task at hand. And doing this over and over and over again, as often as the mind wanders.
Attention is the only way you can use your consciousness to trigger the brain growth that will make life different, and probably easier. The fact of the matter is that you have no idea what your brain is going to do with the sensory information it gets. Your brain does what it does and that’s about all there is to say about it. The only control you have is to determine what that information is, and on the quantity and quality of that information. That is it. It would be great if we could get the brain to do specific things with it, but we do not really have that kind of control over how the brain functions.
Generally speaking, the brain will run a bunch of innate processes and will have the ability to run a number that are specific to the life you have lived. A plumber for example will see things from the eyes of a plumber and will likely be more aware of water and to any sounds that have a water-like quality. An animal doctor will see things through the lens of managing the health of animals and avoiding unnecessary stress of the living creatures that happen to share the same geographic space as them. The point is that the plumber and the veterinarian were not born with these mental processes. Their brain created them in response to the things that they paid a lot of attention to and practiced consistently over time. This is what being an expert is about. Taking in a lot of information consistently over a period of time and allowing the brain to manufacture or write the code for the processes that this stimulation evokes. Sometimes these processes will be predetermined, like how to join two pipes together or the symptoms of distemper in a cat, other times they will be determined by the brain and based on how it responded to the stimulation, like the first heart transplant or the idea for an iPhone.
Paying attention is a mental skill, much like reading or identifying causal patterns or relationships based on spread sheet information. It can be independently rewarding although reaching this point can take a lot of effort and hard work. Initially, we will find it much easier to pay attention to specific things that we have learn to find rewarding. Again, these things are skills and we learn to find certain things to be rewarding through the pairing of those things with the release of reward chemicals. However, the upside to this fact is that we can condition ourselves to find paying attention to the most trivial things to be as rewarding as paying attention to our biggest passion. It just takes consistent practice, over time, and the willingness to return our attention to whatever object we are practicing on everytime it wanders.
Curiosity is one of the best tools at helping this process along because at the root of curiosity is the question “what is going on here?” that the brain is almost powerless to not answer anytime it is asked. Something is always going on even if we have historically made the decision to ignore it. Being alive feels like something. Even of you are not consciously aware of the feeling in your left knee from moment to moment, your left knee is there and the sensory receptors are sending information to your brain constantly. Most of the time we are only aware of that information when something extraordinary has happened – it bumps into a wall, hot coffee is spilled onto it, you land funny after taking a jump shot – but that does not actually mean that information is not always being transmitted to the brain. The brain has had to figure out how to deal with the constant supply of information from millions of sense receptors and over time it created a mental process of paying attention only to the stuff that is in contrast to what is coming in from the surrounding sensory receptors or stuff that is very different from what was coming in from the same receptors the moment before. This is a process that allows us to effectively navigate life without being constantly overwhelmed by trivial and insignificant data; it is much more akin to an active ignoring than it is to a lack of information. And we can, with sufficient effort and practice, create a counter process that allows us to notice the information that is flowing in from moment to moment from any part of the body we want.
This is when our baseline takes a step in the direction of better. By cultivating the ability to pay attention to the sensations that come from the body, we begin to notice the sensations that are coming from the body when we are doing other things. While it may be very unlikely that your knee will vibrate or feel warm in response to someone lying to you, it is not entirely out of the question that this could happen. And if we assume that it does, by learning how to pay attention and then creating the mental process that allows you to notice the sensations in your knee, you will have effectively turned your body into a lie detector. This isn’t going to make your life better, but it will prevent you from believing lies while it will eliminate whatever negative emotions or experiences cause by finding out that someone has lied to you; which is a contrast improvement in the quality of life.
Learning how to pay attention and turning your attention inward will reveal a lot of stuff about the experience of being alive that you been ignoring for years. You will very quickly notice how the mind wanders and the frequency of random thoughts that seem to have no relationship to what you were thinking or doing the moment before. And this is the next big step up in terms of your baseline moving towards something that is better. You’ll probably notice that the brain is doing stuff ALL of the time and you are only just aware of a small number of these things. You’ll likely notice that some thoughts appear instantly and powerfully while others seem to bubble-up as though out of thin air and only take hold if you allow your attention to go to them. You’ll get better at allowing thoughts to come and go and grow very comfortable with the wisdom that no matter what it is you are thinking or feeling right now, it will not last because it hasn’t always been there.
And maybe, with enough practice, you’ll realize that you are more of an observer of life rather than the driver of it. You’ll grow comfortable with the fact that your brain is controlling the entire thing and that you have an amazing brain that is capable of profound and unimaginable things. And you’ll get so much better at deciding what you want our of your time on the planet and paying attention to the things that will give your brain the experiences it needs to make those things happen. Life will get easier because you’ll stop spending time on the things that do not help to move you forward or the things that you are doing habitually simply because they are your baseline. While life will have fewer ups, it will also have fewer downs, which will make living it easier. You won’t suffer through the eliminated down times and you won’t suffer when the good times fade away. This may seem like a sure fire way to create a boring existence, it is the exact opposite of that. It is a stable existence that is filled with the curious pursuit of the things that you want and the chemical rewards that the brain releases in response to doing things that it has been conditioned to reward.
And in the end, it will make you a much better affective forecaster because you’ll know with certainty what you are going to feel in the future. This is slightly different for everyone, but in general it is a peaceful satisfaction that is slightly pleasant, slightly rewarding, and reinforcing. It won’t be a “high” per say, but it will make going to sleep a lot easier and it will help you get out of bed to start the next day an almost effortless thing.
I wouldn’t go back and change anything about how I arrived at this moment in time with these realization because I can’t but mostly because those experiences were critical in helping me arrive here. When I think back on my experiences of achieving a goal, there has always been a sense of satisfaction that lasted longer than any sense of happiness. Human beings have no issue with hard work and we have evolved to reward ourselves chemically when we put the effort in and get a little more reward any time we reach the successful end of a journey. Would I rather feel happy or satisfied? I think I would rather feel satisfied because it doesn’t peak nearly as high, it lasts longer, and it fades out gradually. Most importantly though I’m certain that it will be the outcome when I reach a goal and when I take any individual step towards that goal.
That’s about all there is to say about affective forecasting right now. You can keep doing what you have always been doing and get it wrong or you can take the time to improve your ability to pay attention and then use this skill to create a new mental process that allows you to experience the present moment as it is. When you do this you will shift or change your baseline and stabilize your affective experience making it more predictable. The outcome of doing this for me is that I’m going to feel satisfied when I put in the work and a little more satisfied when the goal is reached. And then I will begin to feel normal again regardless of what I achieved.