My research with Tim Wilson shows that when people try to simulate future events -- and to simulate their emotional reactions to those events -- they make systematic errors. Modern people take the ability to imagine the future for granted, but it turns out that this is one of our species' most recently acquired abilities -- no more than three million years old. The part of our brain that enables us to simulate the future is one of nature's newest inventions, so it isn't surprising that when we try to use this new ability to imagine our futures, we make some rookie errors. The main error, of course, is that we vastly overestimate the hedonic consequences of any event. Neither positive nor negative events hit us as hard or for as long as we anticipate.
We're all told that variety is the spice of life. But variety is not just over-rated, it may actually have a cost. Research shows that people do tend to seek more variety than they should. We all think we should try a different doughnut every time we go to the shop, but the fact is that people are measurably happier when they have their favorite on every visit -- provided the visits are sufficiently separated in time.
Those last four words are the important ones. If you had to eat 4 donuts in rapid succession, variety would indeed spice up your experience and you'd be wise to seek it. But if you had to eat 4 donuts on 4 separate Mondays, variety would lower your overall enjoyment. The human brain has tremendous difficulty reasoning about time, and thus we tend to seek variety whether the doughnuts are separated by minutes or months.
Even in a technologically sophisticated society, some people retain the romantic notion that human unhappiness results from the loss of our primal innocence. I think that's nonsense. Every generation has the illusion that things were easier and better in a simpler past, but the fact is that things are easier and better today than at any time in human history.
Our primal innocence is what keeps us whacking each other over the head with sticks, and it is not what allows us to paint a Mona Lisa or design a space shuttle. It gives rise to obesity and global warming, not Miles Davis or the Magna Carta. If human kind flourishes rather than flounders over the next thousand years, it will be because we embraced learning and reason, and not because we surrendered to some fantasy about returning to an ancient Eden that never really was.
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