We Don’t Know What We Want

The hardest thing is not getting what we want, but knowing what we actually want.

You thought you’d enjoy spending your holiday on a tropical island when in reality it turned out the heat and the mosquitoes made you hate every single second of it.

Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we get there.

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert explains how easy is to fool ourselves by trying to foresee future events, and how we will feel about them when they happen:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope. Just as we experience illusions of eyesight (“Isn’t it strange how one line looks longer than the other even though it isn’t?”) and illusions of hindsight (“Isn’t it strange how I can’t remember taking out the garbage even though I did?”), so too do we experience illusions of foresight—and all three types of illusion are explained by the same basic principles of human psychology.

So, how do we make decisions or set goals if we can’t easily know how we’ll feel when we achieve them?

We’re far better at knowing what we don’t want because we are naturally more sensitive to negative outcomes.

Next time, instead of deciding what you want, ask yourself “What do I not want my future to look like?” and “How can I avoid getting there?”.

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