If you haven’t read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, I highly recommend it. Gilbert’s fundamental principle is that we are the only ape who looked forward. Our brains are constantly “nexting” and imagining the future.
I knew this. But what I didn’t realize is how faulty this mechanism is. We spend 20% of our day imagining tomorrow. What’s interesting is that we are mostly wrong about what the future will bring and/or about how we are going to feel about it when it does happen, hence setting ourselves up for disappointment and unhappiness. Basically, our unique ability to imagine the future is the very thing that sets us up for unhappiness.
Firstly, our imagination is subjective. Not only are we overly optimistic about our future, we overestimate how much we are going to LIKE our futures. This is very true for relationships. How many times have you heard your girlfriends say “he was not what I imagined him to be!”? He is who he his, the only thing fooling you is your own imagination about who he would be with you and how you would feel about it.
The reason we’re so oblivious to this is the fact that we mistake our imagination for reality. Imagining tomorrow happens almost automatically. Our frontal lobe is programmed to imagine and think about the future just like our heart is programmed to pump blood. That’s why meditation is so difficult because it forces our frontal lobe to be in the present and STOP thinking about the future (and I thought there was something wrong with me!)
Another reason our imagination is faulty is our imagination is based on the present. If you go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, you will most likely largely overestimate how much you need to buy. This is the reason why it’s hard for people to reinvent themselves and imagine doing anything that is not based on what they do now or what they have done in the past. This is why dreaming big is usually out of our realm of dreaming. How does your present influence your dreams?
Now that you know this about your brain, what would you do with this information? Can you think of a way this applies to your life?
The book also covers a very interesting conundrum of human behavior. It talks about the mystery of why people do the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
If our main goal in life is the pursuit of happiness then why do we choose people or things that keep making us miserable?