Your Future: Friend or Foe?

Photo by Benjamin Davies via Unsplash

“A coward dies a thousand times before his death…”

– William Shakespeare

We humans area future-oriented species. Upcoming events come to mind, not just in sound and light, but in sentiments.  We assume what we feel now about the future to be a mere sample of what we’ll feel when it arrives.  Often we fail to notice ourselves using phrases like, “I’ll be so happy when…”, or “I would die if..” to describe how we will feel about something. Even though we can’t plan our emotions like calendar entries, we still try.  It’s a phenomenon known as Impact Bias.  

It’s Not Our Fault

Thanks to evolution, humans can, at will, think of the future and feel it’s anticipated emotions. Perhaps, when our ancestors began imagining the pain of a fall from a great height, they stopped jumping off cliffs.  Sadly, this evolutionary safeguard isn’t the gift it once was. In today’s domesticated world, impact bias hurts rather than helps us.  Although most of us no longer fear being attacked by a lion on the Serengeti, we still find the future too agonizing (or exhilarating) to pass up.

For example, our fear of poor job performance may be driven by the imagined sting of a manager’s reprimand. Interestingly, to our bodies, the emotions experienced in the imagined event are as real as any felt here and now.  It’s as if we’ve fool ourselves into thinking the event has just taken place, every time we think of it.  And, impact bias is not restricted to negative events.  In a similar fashion, the mere purchase of a lottery ticket can elicit for us the joy of winning instantaneous wealth.  

Herein lies the problem:  our brains are not very good at predicting our true feelings in the future.  The scorn of a boss.  The joy of a win.  When these events actually occur, our emotions tend to be less intense or long-lasting than we imagined.  How can this be?  Our emotions about the future are the culmination of oft-replayed scenarios in our mind.  Most of us will never experience winning the lottery once – let alone, over and over, until we hear the results.

Even When it’s Good it’s Still Bad

Quickly, we let the highs and lows of current events wear off, replaced by new imaginings of the future.  This pattern, albeit natural, is not helpful.  Stress, fear, and other negative emotions carry well-documented negative side effects on our bodies.  Why should we choose to feel them over and over?

With positive impact bias, we set ourselves up for disappointment.  Even wedding days, when they arrive, are fraught with feelings of nervousness and relief, in addition to the joy we expect.  It’s simply not possible for our most anticipated events to live up to our internal hype.  We waste hours immersed in the ecstasy of winning better jobs, owning dream houses, or finding ideal mates.

Make Friends with Now

So, our challenge is to plan for the future without emoting for it.  None of us are immune to impact bias.  Our best course is to recognize it and rationally dial back our emotions.  We don’t control what we’ll feel in the future.  Let’s choose not to bury the feelings we could have about the present under worries or daydreams.  

Otherwise, we risk missing the most important emotions – the real ones.