Sadder but Not Necessarily Wiser (and not quite as sad as expected)

Here is some more evidence that we poorly predict happiness and unhappiness.

A recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology again shows how poor we are at predicting our future states of happiness or unhappiness. As I wrote about in previous posts on happiness, we seem to be quite poor at predicting how we will feel in the future.

Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick at Northwestern University studied young lovers to see if their predictions of unhappiness after a breakup matched their actual suffering when the breakup occurred.

They looked at college students who had been dating for at least two months and had them fill out multiple questionnaires. Twenty six of the students broke up during the first six months of the study and these students predictions of distress were examined. The students at rated how painful a breakup would be on average two weeks before the breakup.

On average people overestimated the pain of a breakup. There was some correlation between how much people were in love and how much pain they suffered after the breakup, but everyone recovered more quickly than they had predicted. Looking at the actual study it appears that people were able to predict somewhat accurately their suffering in the first two weeks after the breakup. The correlation between their prediction and the actual distress was about 0.60 which means that they were able to predict about 36% of their suffering. But between weeks six and 10, the correlations dropped to about 0.30, which means that they were only able to predict about 10% of the variation in their suffering.

This is interesting in terms of the habituation process that I wrote about earlier. We habituate to both good and bad events. And we underestimate our ability to adapt to both types of events.

Now we shouldn’t make too much of this study. Remember this is a study of college students who had been dating for at least two months. This isn’t exactly a study of deep connection and commitment. It would be interesting, but much more difficult, to look at the same data for married couples who later break up.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

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