Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Our futures look bright, because we reject the possibility that bad things will happen

Date:
April 15, 2013
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
People believe they'll be happy in the future, even when they imagine the many bad things that could happen, because they discount the possibility that those bad things will actually occur, according to a new research.

People believe they'll be happy in the future, even when they imagine the many bad things that could happen, because they discount the possibility that those bad things will actually occur, according to a new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"I've always been fascinated by the changeability of people's perceptions of happiness," says psychological scientist Ed O'Brien of the University of Michigan. "On some days our futures seem bright and exciting, but on other days the same exact future event can feel stressful and terrifying."

With this new research, O'Brien wanted to explore whether fluency -- how easy or difficult it feels to think about different events -- might play a role in how people think about well-being.

He conducted five studies, asking participants to complete online surveys with questions that addressed past and possible future experiences and perceptions of well-being.

In line with previous research, fluency amplified the effects of past events on participants' reports of well-being: The easier it was for people to generate positive past experiences, the happier they said they were in those times. Likewise, the easier it was to come up with negative past experiences, the more unhappy people said they were.

But, in an interesting twist, this trend did not hold true for future experiences.

While thinking about positive future events was still correlated with people's predictions of future happiness, thinking of negative future events didn't have the corresponding effect -- easily imagining negative possibilities didn't sway people to believe that they would be unhappy in the future.

"People seem to 'explain away' the presence of bad possibilities, thinking that they won't really occur," explains O'Brien. "But they have a harder time explaining the absence of good possibilities. The absence of good events in our future feels much worse than the presence of bad ones."

That doesn't mean bad things can't happen to our friends, though. When participants were asked to imagine events and happiness for one of their close friends, they predicted that negative events would have a significant effect on their friend's well-being.

Having to recall many positive events was more difficult than having to come up with only a few, and participants' happiness ratings reflected this: People who were asked to recall twelve past events gave lower ratings of happiness for that period than people who were asked to recall only three experiences.

"Once you struggle to think about the good things, your life seems a lot less happy," says O'Brien. "Ironically, trying to think of ten good things that could happen to you and struggling with that list may be worse for your wellbeing than thinking about only two good things without any problem."

But, just as before, the trend didn't apply to negative events: There was no difference in predicted happiness whether participants were asked to think about three or twelve negative events.

These findings suggest that, when it comes to negative events in the future, fluency doesn't seem to matter -- people expect that experiencing a few negative events is just as unlikely as experiencing many negative events, and they discount the likelihood that the experiences will occur at all.

O'Brien hopes to continue this research, looking for individual differences in the patterns, and also applying them to other domains such as consumer behavior: "Think about the counter-intuitive implications for increasing real buying behavior and customer satisfaction -- maybe customers should be asked to consider all the bad things that could go wrong with the product they're about to buy, rather than the good."

Ultimately, these findings have implications for how we think about what makes us happy.

"Anecdotally, many people endorse the belief that more happiness in quantity yields more happiness in quality. But these findings suggest that struggling to think about many happy aspects of your life can yield less happiness than easily imagining the negative aspects," O'Brien concludes.

This research was supported by a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. E. O'Brien. Easy to Retrieve but Hard to Believe: Metacognitive Discounting of the Unpleasantly Possible. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612461359

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "Our futures look bright, because we reject the possibility that bad things will happen." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 April 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130415124713.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2013, April 15). Our futures look bright, because we reject the possibility that bad things will happen. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130415124713.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "Our futures look bright, because we reject the possibility that bad things will happen." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130415124713.htm (accessed August 27, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Stroke in Young Adults

Stroke in Young Adults

Ivanhoe (Aug. 27, 2014) A stroke can happen at any time and affect anyone regardless of age. This mother chose to give her son independence and continue to live a normal life after he had a stroke at 18 years old. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Distracted Adults: ADHD?

Distracted Adults: ADHD?

Ivanhoe (Aug. 27, 2014) Most people don’t realize that ADHD isn’t just for kids. It can affect the work as well as personal lives of many adults, and often times they don’t even know they have it. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
The Sight and Sounds of Autism

The Sight and Sounds of Autism

Ivanhoe (Aug. 27, 2014) A new study is explaining why for some people with autism what they see and what they hear is out of sync. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Experiences Make Us Happy, Even Just Waiting For Them

Experiences Make Us Happy, Even Just Waiting For Them

Newsy (Aug. 27, 2014) New research finds we get more excited to buy experiences than we do to buy material things. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins