This effect works in a similar way for extremely positive events. For example, consider how it would feel to win the lottery. Many people assume that winning the lottery would immediately deliver long-lasting happiness, but research has found the opposite.
In a very famous study published by researchers at Northwestern University in 1978 it was discovered that the happiness levels of paraplegics and lottery winners were essentially the same within a year after the event occurred. You read that correctly. One person won a life-changing sum of money and another person lost the use of their limbs and within one year the two people were equally happy.
It is important to note this particular study has not been replicated in the years since it came out, but the general trend has been supported again and again. We have a strong tendency to overestimate the impact that extreme events will have on our lives. Extreme positive and extreme negative events don’t actually influence our long-term levels of happiness nearly as much as we think they would.
Researchers refer to this as The Impact Bias because we tend to overestimate the length or intensity of happiness that major events will create. The Impact Bias is one example of affective forecasting, which is a social psychology phenomenon that refers to our generally terrible ability as humans to predict our future emotional states.
When thinking about winning the lottery, we imagine that event and all of the money that it will bring in. But we forget about the other 99 percent of life and how it will remain more or less the same.
We’ll still feel grumpy if we don’t get enough sleep. We still have to wait in rush hour traffic. We still have to workout if we want to stay in shape. We still have to send in our taxes each year.
It will still hurt when we lose a loved one. It will still feel nice to relax on the porch and watch the sunset. We imagine the change, but we forget the things that stay the same. In the words of Greek philosopher Epictetus, “Going lame is an impediment to your leg, but not to your will.” We overestimate how much negative events will harm our lives for precisely the same reason that we overvalue how much positive events will help our lives. We focus on the thing that occurs (like losing a leg), but forget about all of the other experiences of life.
Writing thank you notes to friends, watching football games on the weekend, reading a good book, eating a tasty meal. These are all pieces of the good life you can enjoy with or without a leg. Mobility issues represent but a small fraction of the experiences available to you. Negative events can create task-specific challenges, but the human experience is broad and varied.There is plenty of room for happiness in a life that may seem very foreign or undesirable to your current imagination.For more on the fascinating ways in which our brain creates happiness, read Dan Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness (ebook | audiobook).