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Want to Be Happy? Live and Learn

Jan 01, 2008

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Research by Rebecca Ratner

What makes you happy now? And what will make you happy in the future? These are often the questions that determine who you date, how you spend your time and what you purchase. But so often we make choices that don’t seem to truly reflect what makes us happy—information that we should have gained from past experiences. We live and don’t learn, in other words.

Rebecca Ratner, associate professor of marketing, thinks part of the problem may be that we just don’t remember correctly. Her expertise is in the field of affective forecasting, which looks at how we predict our emotions, and whether our predictions match the way we actually feel.

Ratner conducted a study that asked people to predict how they would feel about an experience, and then, after some time had passed, asked people to remember their predictions. A surprising number remembered a different prediction than the one they’d actually made. “We’re not saying that people can’t remember their previous predictions and experiences,” says Ratner. “But they often seem to remember them inaccurately.”

This inability to remember how we really felt during an experience—and how we predicted we would feel—may be part of what keeps us from learning how to more accurately predict our future feelings, and what causes us to make future choices that don’t truly satisfy. This tendency to imperfectly predict future feelings isn’t such a big deal if you’re choosing what car to buy or an entrée at a restaurant, but it can have a disastrous effect on your life if you are choosing a retirement community or a life partner.

The good news is, these biased memories of past experiences are eliminated when we focus on our enjoyment during an experience. So pay attention to how much fun you are actually having at the time you are having it, and whether this fits with what you had expected. That should help you make better choices in the future. Because people who don’t learn from history—especially their own!—seemed doomed to repeat it.

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