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Should Happiness Be a Factor in Our Decisions?

How to avoid making our expectations about happiness a trap.

Key points

  • Affective forecasting, or the process of predicting how one will feel at a future point in time, is often involved in decisions.
  • Predictions about happiness and other emotions are often inaccurate.
  • While happiness is an important factor in decision-making, it's also important to learn how to make one's predictions stronger.
  • Research shows that expectations about the quality of an experience influence how one feels during the experience itself.
Source: albund/depositphotos

How we feel affects the choices we make, the actions we take, and the lives we build. From choosing which movie to watch or which restaurant to go to for dinner to which job offer to take and which city to live in, our decisions are often based on how happy we expect to be with the outcomes of these decisions.

The multitude of decisions we have to make each day, the gravity that many of these decisions carry, and the complexity of the decision-making process itself, make predicting our future happiness a considerable challenge. How well can we rely on our predictions about our emotional future?

The process of predicting how we will feel at a future point in time is called affective forecasting. Affective forecasting is involved in many of our decisions. But the truth is that we are not impressive fortune tellers of our emotional future.

We indisputably pursue situations that we expect will make us happy and avoid situations that bring about distress. While it is a natural tendency to prefer pleasure over pain, there are some factors to consider when we make decisions based on how happy or unhappy we expect to feel.

1. Our current emotional state affects our predictions about our future emotional state. Our emotions are never turned off. We constantly experience affect. Affect is the raw ingredient from which more complex emotions are made. The affect we experience in the moment puts us in a certain emotional state, which influences the predictions we make about our future feelings. As a result, it is difficult to remain objective when we make predictions.

In general, being in a good mood leads to positive emotion forecasts, while being in a bad mood produces negative emotion forecasts. Decisions we make about whether to participate in an activity in the future and how we expect to feel during the activity depend to a large degree on our current mood. This means that before we commit to being part of a seemingly exciting project at work or to going to a friend’s housewarming party, we must consider factors other than how excited we feel about our commitment in that moment.

2. Our emotional memory for past events is unreliable. Emotions are moment-to-moment experiences, created by a combination of physiological, psychological, and situational factors. This makes storing them in memory in their original form very difficult. We may remember details of an event, conversations we have had with people, and even describe how we felt at the time, but recreating that same emotion we were experiencing at that time in the past is highly improbable.

This does not mean that we do not remember how we felt during an event. Nor does it mean that we do not have an emotional reaction to the event when we recall it. But the emotional reaction occurs in the here and now and is created nearly from scratch. We may remember the pride and relief we felt at our high school graduation, but our present experience is only a shadow of the feelings we had back then. Going through high school again to experience the same feeling is not a good option. Naturally, if I wanted to feel pride again, I would go through my memory bank to recall what makes me proud.

When we make predictions about our future feelings, we tend to use our memories of past events and whatever recollection we have of the emotions we experienced—whether positive or negative. But reliving this event in the future is not a guarantee that the same emotions will emerge.

While this practice is generally harmless, it could become an obstacle when these predictions either encourage us or discourage us from engaging in such events or activities again. People who experienced stage fright during a public speaking event, for example, are likely to avoid signing up for the next event to avoid re-experiencing the high anxiety.

3. We consider the good, but leave out the bad and the ugly when making predictions. A birthday party. An overseas wedding. A beach vacation. A first date. A new job. Exciting, right? Sign me up! In general, we construe these events in our minds as celebrations, rewards, and remedies. Our mental representations of these and other similar events, however, are abstractions.

How we construe a certain event in our minds strongly affects our affective forecasting. If we have classified it as a happy occasion, we tend to rely on the desirable elements as we make our predictions and ignore the undesirable elements. Imagining a future event like this requires considering many different aspects to improve our accuracy. We may expect that throwing a birthday party could bring about a lot of joy, laughter, and affection. Except it may bring a lot of other emotions too, when a half-hour before the party you so meticulously planned, you start receiving cancellations from people who RSVP’d “count me in”; when a half-hour into the party, you run out of beverages; or when a half-hour after the party, you find your favorite vase broken in pieces under the table.

4. When we have to choose, we get distracted by differences and ignore similarities. Affective forecasting is also involved in decisions we make between two future alternatives. Researchers have observed that when people make decisions between two alternatives, they are more focused on the differences between the two rather than the similarities. This means that we make our predictions about how we will feel in each alternative scenario based on the features that distinguish the two alternatives, disregarding the fact that the commonalities between them may be the factors that will make an actual contribution to our emotional experience in that future moment. We may struggle to predict whether, for our upcoming hiking trip, it would be more enjoyable to stay at a hotel or to bring our camping gear, making long lists of pros and cons. However, the joy of the trip may be more a result of being away from home, taking a break from work, and being close to nature. Our choice of lodging may not have as big an impact on the emotional side of our experience.

5. The good news: We can trust our expectations. You may have heard that if you don’t want to be disappointed, keep your expectations low. Paradoxically, this adage does not hold much water. In most cases, research shows that our expectations about the quality of an experience influence how we feel during the actual experience in a direction consistent with our expectations. If we think that having a playdate with our neighbors’ children will be enjoyable, we most likely will feel joy during the event. Similarly, if we think the highly advertised horror movie will keep us jumping off our seats, we will find ourselves on the edge of our seats during the movie.

It is unclear why some people experience consistency between their expectations and experience and other people experience dissonance between the two. It could be that creating expectations is a deliberate and elaborate mental exercise, and perhaps the more work that goes into them, the more of the factors we discussed above we take into account, and the more predictive power our expectations have. In my opinion, you are the best person to make that call. You know yourself the best and you know whether it is wiser for you to mitigate your expectations and be pleasantly surprised.

So, should happiness be a factor in our decisions? Absolutely. But, putting the obscurity and unpredictability of happiness aside, we can become better forecasters when we are more aware of what could make our predictions stronger and hit the happiness sweet spot.


Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 35, pp. 345–411). Elsevier Academic Press.

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