What Is Affective Forecasting and How Can It Hurt (or Help) Your Emotional Health?

Affective Forecasting

How many times have you predicted the way you will feel about something in the future and been right? For example, think about something you really want to get. If you’re a fashionista, perhaps it’s buying a new pair of the trendiest shoes. If you’re really into music, maybe it’s buying tickets to a concert you’ve been wanting to see. As you anticipate such things to come, you may feel really pumped up about them, believing they will make you feel just as happy when you get them as you do right now by simply thinking about them.

This type of projection is called affective forecasting. The term affect refers to emotions. People commonly predict how they will feel when they acquire, achieve, do, or otherwise enhance their life. This makes sense in many ways and motivates us to be driven toward whatever the thing is that we want. What’s interesting though is that once you get what you wanted you aren’t going to feel quite as happy as you thought you would. The opposite is also true. A future event that you are not looking forward to because you’re sure it’s going to make you feel terrible, ends up being only moderately unpleasant.

We Unintentionally Exaggerate

The big problem with predicting how you’ll feel in the future is that you are projecting emotions based on how you feel in the present. Quite often those emotions are exaggerated, and most of the time they end up being off the mark. Since our lives are multi-faceted and influenced by many things at once, it’s very difficult to know exactly how you will feel down the road. Not to say that desiring things is necessarily bad, rather it is the emotional power we mistakenly assign to the feelings about them that is misleading and can subsequently diminish our satisfaction quotient.

We’re usually pretty good at being able to predict in advance whether an event or situation is likely to be good or unpleasant. However, we’re not very skilled at accurately predicting what the intensity of our emotions will be nor how long they will last. This is due to impact bias which is our tendency to overestimate how good or bad something in the future will make us feel.

One of the contributing factors for this kind of bias is the knack we have for focusing on a singular positive aspect of what it is to come while underestimating the concurrent demands of other things like responsibilities at home or work. For example, you and a group of friends plan a long weekend getaway. The excitement and joy you have about the fun you’ll have together overrides your thoughts about any negative implications, such as the cost of the trip or returning home on a red-eye flight.

It’s Not as Bad—or as Good—as You Predict

Aside from very stressful situations such as the death of a loved one or divorce, when we think about something bad happening in the future—like not getting a highly coveted job offer—we tend to overestimate how awful we will feel. This is because we accommodate rather quickly to changes in our circumstances. Through processes like reasoning, positive beliefs, and attribution to external forces, our psychological immune system helps us to recover from disappointing or otherwise negative events. In unconscious ways it helps us to adapt, so we’re likely to justify the loss by convincing ourselves that:

  • A better job is waiting
  • It’s God’s will
  • The boss is probably a jerk
  • Or by other means of rationalization that decrease our negative feelings.

So, what we initially predicted to be feeling really horrible, isn’t quite so terrible after all.

We make similar unconscious accommodations with positive events too. For instance, today you might be projecting a sense of happiness for when you acquire or achieve something you really want. However, once it actually happens, it becomes integrated into your life, and though it’s still positive, the intensity of those predicted positive emotions starts to diminish and wear off surprisingly quickly. So, while the outcome is still a good one, your degree of happiness or satisfaction did not increase as much as you had anticipated it would.

Are You a Debbie-Downer?

Of note, if you’re almost always projecting feelings about the future with a glass-half-empty perspective, you might be what’s known as a negative forecaster. This mindset is consistent with certain mental health issues such as depression, which can cause people to lose their joy, interest in things, and hope for the future. Negative forecasting is also common in people with anxiety, who tend to be more fearful and predict the worst outcome for situations.

Conversely, the tendency to believe you are going to feel good in the future is called positive forecasting and research has found it to be associated with a greater sense of well-being and resilience from stress.

Seeing the future with a glass-half-empty perspective is called negative forecasting and is found in people with depression and anxiety. Conversely, positive forecasting is associated with a greater sense of well-being and resilience. Click To Tweet

3 Ways to Be More Realistic About Your Future Feelings

Although it can be challenging, it’s important to practice being more accurate in predicting how you will feel in the future because it can have a significant bearing on important decisions you make. If you’re considering a relocation, career change, getting married, or any life-changing event, be aware of the natural human tendency to be incorrect about how you will ultimately feel.

To help guide you, here are 3 things you can do:

  1. Be sure you consider the pros and cons of things you desire so you can be more realistic about the emotional impact of your choices.
  2. To help temper miscalculations, talking to others and getting objective perspectives about how the things you want—or what you want to avoid—will likely make you feel when the future arrives.
  3. Don’t rush important decisions. Write down your thoughts in a journal over a period of time to help you stay in a more cognitive frame of mind, rather than letting your emotions dictate your decisions because emotions naturally fluctuate.

If you’re suffering with symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems, at Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

3 Comments

  1. This article was very helpful, thank you. I’ve had depression and anxiety for a good part of my life and I have been that Debbie downer a lot in my head. Today I choose to do my very best to look at situations more realistically and by doing so I believe I will attract or unveil the positive forces this day in my life. Yea!

    Comment by Julie Pew — May 17, 2021 @ 8:35 AM

  2. Good afternoon, I wonder Brain scanning is available in Miami, Fl? Could you provide any information please?

    Comment by Alejandra F — May 17, 2021 @ 11:20 AM

  3. This was very helpful. After a Covid layoff, found a good job opportunity that fits my skillset with duties I enjoy, but not overly excited about it. This helps me understand my “forecasting” tendencies and why everyone around me believes it’s a great opportunity, and I’m still hesitant. Thank you!

    Comment by A Kay — May 18, 2021 @ 12:57 PM

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