How would you feel if, six months from now, you lost your job? How will you feel if you meet the love of your life tomorrow? What kind of work will make you happy a year from now? How much money would it take for you to feel carefree?
Chances are, most of your answers to those questions are wrong.
The reason? Predicting how you’ll feel in a future moment in time isn’t an inherent strength for us humans.
Coined by psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, “affective forecasting” refers to how we predict our future emotions and how certain life events will affect them.
By and large, we’re pretty bad at it—and that impacts our productivity, our goal setting, and our overall happiness. It leads us to chase empty financial benchmarks, to procrastinate against our better judgment, to inaccurately estimate how long a task will take us to complete, and be otherwise pretty lame to our future selves.
The key to setting truly satisfying goals, then, comes down to better understanding and predicting your emotions, including how they’ll change over time, how external events will affect them, and how they’ll impact things like personal productivity.
What Is Affective Forecasting?
Let’s back up a step and really get this “affective forecasting” concept down.
According to Psychology Today, affective forecasting is simpler than the name may sound. It’s “predicting how one will feel in the future.”
When you considered our questions in the intro, you were doing it—you were predicting how you’ll feel in different circumstances in the future.
When you look forward, you aim to predict four different aspects of your feelings:
- Valence, or whether you’ll feel positive or negative emotions
- The specific emotion (e.g. anger or fear or frustration)
- How long the feeling will last
- How intense it will feel
Humans have a skill for predicting whether a future event will yield positive or negative emotions and pinpointing what those emotions will be, but study after study has shown you consistently misjudge and overestimate the duration and intensity of future emotions.
Gilbert uses the example of relationships. If asked how you’d feel if your spouse left, most people would say they’d be devastated—and you probably would be at this turn of marital events. However, your brain has its own immune system, and you’re remarkably good at adapting to new situations. So odds are, life without your spouse would begin to feel normal pretty quickly.
On the flip side, if you win the lottery tomorrow, you’ll probably feel pretty excited, but that feeling, too, will fade more quickly than you may predict.
Why Aren’t We Better At Forecasting Our Feelings?
You live with emotion every day of your life, so why haven’t you learned to better predict them? It’s a fair question, and the main answer is this: you’re irreparably biased by the now. That leads to three main barriers to accurate affective forecasting.
- Impact Bias: This refers to your tendency to overestimate the intensity and duration of future emotions. You tend to underestimate your brains’ ability to cope with and adapt to life changes, leading to an overestimation of emotion.
- Projection Bias: However you feel in the present, you tend to project that onto the future. You expect to feel and make decisions in the future similar to how we feel and make decisions today. But, as these will inevitably change, you will change.
- Focalism: When picturing an event in the future, you tend to focus only on that event, to the exclusion of everything else that may happen (and affect how we feel), too.
Affective Forecasting Can Help You Set Better Goals
Now that you understand how bad humans are at affective forecasting, you might be wondering why you should bother learning to do it better. As Gilbert explains:
“Our ability to look into the future and think about what will make us most happy is the way that we get to a present that pleases us.”
Happiness, Gilbert and other affective forecasting authorities theorize, is a deliberate cultivation of the circumstances we predict will make us happy. Future happiness is a perfectly good justification for affective forecasting in itself—but there are other reasons, too:
- On the practical side, goal setting and planning is about more than finding the time to complete tasks. Because not all time is created equal.
- Happiness and emotions affect your overall productivity. So how long a task will take and the quality of the end-product will vary depending on when you decide to schedule it and the circumstances and emotions surrounding that time.
- According to a recent New York Times article, procrastination is more about emotion management than laziness. If you can better predict your emotions later on, then you can make better decisions about scheduling work when you’re most likely to actually do it.
For example, I may schedule article edits for after I’ve had dinner with the family and taken Fido for a walk. But by the time I sit back down at my desk, I’m wiped. Learning to better predict how I’ll feel later on means I can make the more realistic and impactful decision between finishing those edits now or saving them for tomorrow.
Goals Set This Way Are More Satisfying
When you sit down to set personal and professional goals, what are they typically based on? In your personal life, you might think about the next typical life step—like getting married once you’ve been dating for a number of years. Professionally, that might look like taking your boss’ job or securing a pay bump.
But will any of those things actually satisfy you?
When goal-setting, many people think more about what’s next instead of asking, “What’s next for me?”
Affective forecasting shifts that mindset, forcing you to view your goals through the lens of what you really want, what will make you happy, and how achieving those goals will make you feel.
It’s a practice that helps you confront peer pressure, other people’s expectations, and learned mindsets that keep you from chasing unfulfilling “success.”
Here are a few examples of how that mindset can shift what your goals look like, both at work and at home:
- The traditional capitalist mindset says you should always set a goal to earn more money than the year before—but freelance writer Kaleigh Moore learned the hard way that earning more isn’t what makes her feel happy or fulfilled. So she reframed her goal from an ever-ascending financial benchmark to one centered around taking better care of herself.
- Many say that you should buy a house as soon as you can afford to—to start building equity. That’s a goal many young people internalize. But, through affective forecasting, you may come to realize that living in the same place for years or being responsible for fixing anything and everything that goes wrong won’t make you happy. Instead, you may set a goal to continue renting and invest your savings in something else.
- Increasingly in some lines of work, there are two divergent professional paths: full-time employment or freelance work. To decide, you might weigh the earning potential, the value of being your own boss, the costs of self-employment, et cetera. By applying affective forecasting, you add another level to each of those. Instead of automatically choosing the option with the highest earning potential, you weigh how earning that much or that little would feel. What would it mean for you?
3 Ways To Set Rewarding Goals
It’s clear that better affective forecasting holds the power to help you cultivate a happier, more satisfying life—both inside and out of work.
But how can you do it better? Here are three steps to help you set better goals via affective forecasting.
1. Understand the barriers to accurate affective forecasting.
The first step is to understand the things that stand between your present self and your future self.
That includes those natural biases, but it also includes situations and events you just can’t predict. Looking at your schedule, your goals, and more in this way, encourages you to take a step back and imagine multiple possibilities and how each may affect you.
That’s good practice for affective forecasting in general, and it can help you arrive at the most accurate prediction overall.
Not to mention, by taking the time to think through all eventualities, you’ll be better prepared to react and adjust your goals if need be.
2. Use mindfulness to get in touch with your emotions.
At its core, poor affective forecasting represents a lack of intimacy between yourself and your emotions. Mindfulness can help you better understand how you react to certain situations or events and why you feel that way.
By practicing mindfulness, you can come to recognize and better understand an emotion and its cause, without being consumed by it. When you have a better sense of the why behind your emotions, you can better predict how different situations and events will make you feel.
3. Consider outside forces and their effects.
Both focalism and your bias of the now create a kind of tunnel vision into the future. You can imagine how changing one factor will make you feel—but your life doesn’t play out in a vacuum. Many other things will change (including ourselves).
Consider Gilbert’s example of your spouse leaving you. Over time, you’ll begin to think of your spouse differently. You may change jobs or become a caregiver for a sick parent. Any and all of those things affect how you’ll feel—in addition to the fact that your spouse left.
Affective forecasting that ignores those outside forces will always exhibit blindspots.
Like the procrastination example explained before. If I’m going to schedule work for after dinner, I need to consider how the events of eating dinner, spending time with family, taking the dog for a walk, and more will affect my emotional state. I have the energy to complete that work now, but will I still after all that activity?
Acknowledging the things that will happen between now and the future can help you forecast better to achieving your goals no matter how large or small they are in your mind.
The Perfect Trio: Affective Forecasting, Goal Setting & Happiness
When you set goals for your personal and professional lives, happiness is often the True North you aim for. By working to better predict how meeting those goals will make you feel, you can set smarter goals that actually lead you closer to that happiness benchmark.