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Great Expectations

Rachel Estapa

As I grow older, one truth becomes increasingly apparent: I'm not able to predict the future, never have and never will. When it comes to future-planning, people take numerous perspectives that range somewhere between extremes.  On one end, many go through life with an entitled sense of control over the universe - that it should bend to their needs and regards only. At the other end, a passive acceptance of "what will be, will be" -- a seemingly nice [but often cliché] motto that doesn't encourage a person to take full accountability or responsibility for the quality of their life. It comes down to being able to balance the extremes --the desire to control everything in life [which we view as helping us reach our goals] but yet, grasp an understanding that there's very little you can control, other than how you perceive events unfolding before you.

Why then,  should we re-examine our obsession with future-planning? There's been a lot of scientific research done in the area called affective forecasting, which tries to understand why and how we forecast our affect (emotional state) surrounding future events. We set our whole lives up to achieve a set of markable goals and must-haves (ex: getting married, obtaining a professional title, have kids, gain material wealth) but have we really thought about why we want them? On the flip-side, perceived negative emotional events, (death of a loved one, a break-up, financial set-back) we tend to think that if these events happen, we'd be devastated and perhaps never be the same again.  But research has shown that humans are terrible at being accurate when it comes to knowing what will make us happy or unhappy.

Leading the area of affective forecasting is Harvard's Dan Gilbert -- I'll let his quote sum up his work best:

"Why do we so often fail to know what will make us happy in the future?....Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable."

He believes what makes humans so unique is our minds ability to imagine and play out possible future events; but what's missing is our ability to accurately anticipate  how intensely we'll feel something. Affective forecasting is used in positive psychology research in the area of happiness. Human's are not too good at estimating how long they will feel an emotion after a certain event. Studies have shown that winners of the lottery (a perceived happy and good event), return to the same level of happiness/unhappiness they had within 5 years prior to winning the fortune. On the flip-side, people who have lost limbs or suffered traumatic physical injuries (a perceived negative event) also return to the same level of happiness/unhappiness they had before their accident. These studies suggest that external factors play very little importance into our minds set-point of how satisfied we are with out current state. Quality of life is measured more appropriately from the internal. Status, prestige and image, depends upon the external.

This concept so important for me to understand now in life because I want to avoid the trap of believing that my worthiness of success, happiness and life satisfaction is contingent upon external factors entirely. The concept of the "ideal" job, partner, college, car, house, town, weight and life was branded in all of us at a young age. Eventually, we each come face to face with the confusing feelings surrounding what we should do and what we want to do. Distinguishing the two is often a challenge, but perhaps the most important one we need to understand. Through trial and error of our experiences and by paying attention, reflecting and questioning our long-held assumptions, we can more easily learn to lead from the heart.

The manageable way to ensure we move towards the life we want, yet, live within the means we currently have, rests somewhere between the two extremes above. It requires a delicate blend of purposeful, directed actions and surrender to that unknown realm of chance and uncertainty. It's a marriage of risk and trust that really comes down to never thinking you have all the answers, but not so naive as to think you have none. There have been plenty of unexpected events in my life that have garnered in me with a sense preparing for the worst, hoping for the best, and living as diligently as possible towards my potentials.  The unexpected has taught me to trust more in myself, my resilience and determination, and especially in those around me who I can turn to in difficult times. I made a startling revelation not too long ago, that when I stopped trying to control my experiences, more unique opportunities came my way. I often need to remind myself of this, especially in stressful times.  But I try to take the scenic route rather than the expressway - - the unexpected is found when you travel with a sense of adventure and openness.

Take care,