The article that really put-it-together and potentially explains so much was The Futile Pursuit of Happiness.
There are a few terms coined in the article which are going to go into my vocabulary, not because the terms are particularly interesting in themselves, but the ideas behind them deserve a compact representation.
- affective forecasting: how we forecast our feelings, and whether those predictions match our future emotional states.
- impact bias: the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience. ''impact'' meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and ''bias'' our tendency to err.
- empathy gap: the fundamental difference between how we behave in ''hot'' states (those of anxiety, courage, fear, drug craving, sexual excitation and the like) and ''cold'' states of rational calm. This empathy gap in thought and behavior -- we cannot seem to predict how we will behave in a hot state when we are in a cold state -- affects happiness in an important but somewhat less consistent way than the impact bias.
- miswanting: mistakes of expectation that can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure.
I definitely have some memorable and significant cases of miswanting. As I bet we all do of course. One of my own examples: I'm now pretty wary of any desire I may have for a pet. I desired a pet badly as a kid. I can vividly remember sitting on the stairway and envisioning the happiness that would be the inevitable result. Well, I had two pets and I've learned my lesson from experience. The novelty wore off quickly. (This isn't a proof about all pets. I've some evidence that some pets would work. But my error in prediction specifically about the pets I did have was real. )
I put these Futile ideas together with those of stress and get a powerful notion. The desired stress relief that I may seek because I predict it will so wonderfully relieve some awful stress may not relieve the pressure with anywhere near the high quality I anticipate.
Or specifically to follow-up my last post, that she won't make me as happy as I think I will be. ;-) At least, that's the game I get to play with myself now: I tell myself to relax and temper my desire by remembering that the relief and happiness that would be the result are probably overblown in my own mind. That might even be true. But this analysis is hampered by a particular manifestation of the empathy gap: it's hard to think of her and avoid entering a "hot" state where my values may shift significantly from a "cold" state rational analysis.
I've discovered that one particular way to put myself into a cold state where I can see the ups and downs and weigh long-term consequences is to imagine myself married. The thought can be somewhat sobering.
But, what if after some years, we were to get a divorce?! There's a chill, but no longer a "cold" state. It may be worthy of consideration though. Along those same lines was another article that appeared before The Futile Pursuit of Happiness, but which makes a lot of sense with the Futile ideas in mind: Untying The Knot.
Do not get me wrong about all this, I definitely recognize that I've had a goodly number of experiences where I did get what I wanted and while perhaps it didn't make everything as perfect as I sometimes imagined (and certainly I would expect that to be mutual), it was fantastic while each lasted and I certainly wouldn't trade back any of it.
This whole train of thought is certainly not overly cynical, quite the opposite. I think it hopeful to find that perhaps people, including and especially myself, act in such a predictably irrational way. This whole analysis is just an experiment in trying to understand how things are. I think that my modus operandi for living might most appropriately be described as Taoist, and so as not to fight the flow, I seek to have some understanding of it.