One powerful benefit of a dedicated mindfulness practice is it can help us see through our problematic human habits and unconscious biases. There’s a concept in psychology called “miswanting”, a term coined by researchers Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson. It’s the tendency we all have to inaccurately predict how much enjoyment and satisfaction something will bring us. It’s one category of “affective forecasting”, which is the prediction we make about how we will feel in the future. When we want something, it’s because we predict that it will bring us happiness, and the happier we think something will make us, the more we want it.
In the process of miswanting, we tend to inflate or exaggerate the intensity and duration of the good feelings we will experience when we get what we want. This is called impact bias and it happens because of our tendency to:
- over-focus exclusively on the thing we want, forgetting to include all the other complicated factors that will affect our experience
- be unaware of the unconscious phenomena of habituation or hedonic adaptation – our innate capacity to get used to things
Many of the things we think will make us happy like earning a raise or promotion, falling in love, or taking a vacation, don’t make us significantly happier, especially over the long-term. One study showed that assistant professors inflated how happy they predicted they would be if they received tenure, but those who didn’t achieve it were just as happy as those who did. Another classic study showed that, a year or two after hitting the jackpot, lottery winners were about as happy as they were before they won.
When we’re not mindful, we can find ourselves caught up in a harmful cycle of wanting, achieving our desires, and then failing to be happier in a meaningful or lasting way. This has been called the hedonic treadmill. The more heightened our emotional state becomes, the worse we are at predicting the future and accurately remembering the past, keeping us trapped in a cycle of suffering.
Interestingly, impact bias can also happen with disliking. In our predictions, we tend to exaggerate the negative impact that bad things will have on us. But research reveals that even things we predict would be ruinous for our happiness, don’t decrease our happiness as much as we imagine they would. For example, one study showed that after an initial period of adjustment, people who lost a limb returned to their original baseline of happiness. Though people often specify in their living wills that they do not wish to receive medical attention to prolong their lives if the quality is very low, when medical researchers interviewed people who were dying and experiencing a very low quality of life, they overwhelmingly reported they would consent to treatments that would give them even only a few additional days.
Another important factor is that our wanting and not wanting is often based on indiscriminate reference points. Our brains tend to use what we’re exposed to most often as points of self-comparison rather than mindfully choosing appropriate examples and models. So, if we watch a lot of TV or absorb too much social media, the yardstick by which we measure our experiences may be skewed. This is reflected in the research that tells us many people believe others are happier, richer, have more friends, and enjoy more sex than we are and than they actually are.
An interesting aspect of hedonic adaptation is that that it happens more with things that we personally experience rather than things we observe happening to others. One study showed that due to habituation, we actually are less hateful toward people who have harmed us personally than those we observe harming another. This might be why kindness, acts of generosity and experiencing appreciative joy bring us more lasting happiness – there’s less habituation happening.
Mindfulness can give us both the wisdom and the choice to step off the hedonic treadmill and turn our minds toward what really matters, offering us the opportunity to achieve real and lasting happiness through:
- Reducing stress and reactivity
- Improving emotional and behavioral self-regulation
- Increasing awareness of, presence with, and gratitude for the good things we have been given
- Savoring pleasant experiences rather than grasping at and clinging to them
- Understanding the impermanence of all things, contributing to our appreciation of what is pleasurable and our tolerance for what is painful
- Having humility around the countless causes and conditions that complicate our ability to make accurate predictions
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
– William Blake, excerpt from Songs of Innocence and Experience
- Gilbert, D. T., Pinel, E. C., Wilson, T. D., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 617-638.
- Gilbert, D. T., Lieberman, M. D., Morewedge, C. K., & Wilson, T. D. (2004). The peculiar longevity of things not so bad. Psychological Science, 15, 14-19.
- Gilbert, D. T., & Ebert, J. E. J. (2002). Decisions and revisions: The affective forecasting of changeable outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 503-514.
- Gilbert & Wilson (2000). ”Miswanting: Some problems in the forecasting of future affective states.” In Thinking and feeling: The role of affect in social cognition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Pages 178-197.