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There's a Name for Why We So Often Fail to Predict What Will Improve Our Future Happiness

And it's called miswanting.
(Illustration: Mark Matcho)

(Illustration: Mark Matcho)

Humans are terrible at diagnosing the causes of their emotions. Take a famous experiment, in which researchers sent dozens of men, one at a time, across two bridges over a surging river. One bridge was high, narrow, and wobbly; the other offered a wide, steady path, closer to the river surface. On the far side of each bridge waited a woman who offered each man her phone number. Many of the men who crossed the wobbly bridge decided to call her; most of the men who crossed the sturdier bridge did not. So was it the woman or the wobbly bridge that caused the men’s hearts to palpitate? All signs point unromantically to the bridge: It was the impulse of fear, mistaken for attraction, that drove the men’s actions. The study illustrates a common form of human folly: miswanting. It’s the name for the scrambled logic behind our wants, and our tendency to poorly align those wants with what we’ll actually enjoy.

Miswanting afflicts more than our romantic feelings. We usually fail in predicting what will improve our future happiness, and by how much. Getting overlooked for a promotion rarely hurts for as long as we expect—because we don’t account for the many other events, big and small, good and bad, that will occur in the surrounding days. When we crave the fat, juicy cheeseburger in a fast-food commercial, we’re not anticipating the floppy, tasteless patty we often get. Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, summarized decades of such findings in a 2001 paper: “Much unhappiness ... has less to do with not getting what we want, and more to do with not wanting what we like.”

We don’t know ourselves any better than we know what’s to come, and we miscalibrate expectations accordingly. Considering how blind hopes can be, it’s a miracle we ever find pleasure.


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