New Haven, CT

When we want something, we think we will like it: a Yale University, New Haven, CT free science course explains why

Karen Madej

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How is it possible to get what you want and yet not want what we like? ~ Gilbert and Wilson, (2000)

Want is a prediction of liking something. Liking is how we feel about something.

Do you remember wanting something so bad? Do you remember perms? So many girls and celebrities had one, they looked amazing. I thought I’d like mine. That was the eighties, I assure you perms were very popular back then.

I left the salon and rushed straight into the Ladies bathroom and brushed my ugly tight new curls. Big mistake. It ballooned into a frizzy mess!

I didn’t want my new hairdo because it was nothing like all the beautiful women with perms. Luckily, the perm relaxed after two months, Then I liked it.

Often, when we want something, we convince ourselves we will like it when we get it. Unfortunately, most of the things we want to buy or be when we buy them turn out to be a disappointment, and we don't want them.

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We imagine we will like what we know

But we don’t or can’t imagine all the possibilities until we’ve experienced or seen them.

My partner and I bought a three-bedroom two-bath apartment in Cape Verde and we moved there to live the dream. We’d done a ton of research before going ahead with an online purchase.

After building work on the condominium started, we visited the sales office to see our contact. We were on a day trip to the island of Sao Vicente during a two-week holiday on the main island of Sal. It was exciting to rush around the port city of Mindelo.

The research showed a lively nightlife with bars and clubs which suited us. The apartment was excellent value compared to other less developed islands in the archipelago. And we had a beach across the road from us! I imagined reading my books on the beach, taking a dip in the cool Atlantic when it got too hot, and having fabulous evenings out.

Real life on the island was like nothing I’d ever known before. Six weeks of being eaten alive by mosquitos during the rainy season that research told us hadn’t happened for eleven years, and daily diarrhoea when we first arrived in Cape Verde. Being taken a fancy to by the bugs that lived in the sand on the beach put me off sunbathing on the beach.

Little did I know there was far worse to come. There was no structure or routine to the days. The only intellectual challenges were books which were scarcer than hens’ teeth. We couldn’t even order any books because — we were informed by some fellow ex-pats — anything of value posted to the island went missing.

There was no decent coffee to be found on the island. No employment opportunities for a foreigner. My partner — I should have realised this — wanted to drink vast quantities of beer every night. I did not.

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On the nights we did go out eating and drinking, the hygiene of the facilities was seriously lacking. Especially water in the bathrooms during the peak tourist season at Christmas. We were without running water for four days.

An average temperature of 25 degrees 365 days a year would, for some, be heaven. It was windy every day. I discovered I missed seasons and hated constant sunshine, the wind, and the flies.

My partner found another woman to drink with while I watched Portuguese TV alone. I stopped talking to him and moved back to the UK eleven months after we arrived.

A few months later we split up and three months after that he announced his impending marriage to the other woman.

“Miswanting refers to the fact that people sometimes make mistakes about how much they will like something in the future. That is, people often mispredict the duration of their good and bad feelings.” ~ Brett Pelham

Miswanting: Some problems in the forecasting of future affective states.

In their study, Gilbert and Wilson determined our personal psychology of wanting is naive. We trust what we know is right.

Compounded by adverts on TV, social media influences, and the call of Amazon late at night, we will buy and think we will like what we are getting. We trust we are right and feel certain we will get everything we want. We’ll be happy.

As I now know, there were flaws in my naive way of thinking.

An example of the first flaw was my mispredicting the simple choice of hairstyle and how much I would like my new perm when I actually saw it on my head.

Another example was totally misunderstanding what living on a small island would be like. I mean, how could they not have any drinking water other than imported mineral, and a truck that drove around the city pumping non-potable tap water up to the tops of buildings? I didn’t even consider that. I'd had hot and drinkable cold running water all my life!

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Happiness

A myriad of interweaving threads creates happiness. I could have predicted some of the unknowns that raised their disastrous heads and ruined my dream, but there was no way of foreseeing all of them.

Even if it had been able to predict the outcome of the two events, hair and dream apartment, it was unlikely I would have been able to predict how they would affect me in the long run.

The second flaw identified by the study was difficulties in predicting the long term emotional reactions to the events.

“Liking does not follow getting so much as it accommodates it.” ~ Gilbert and Wilson, (2000)

I got my perm. I hated it. My initial reaction was revulsion but I got used to it and eventually saw the positive effects.

I got my dream apartment on a dream island. The reverse is true of this life event. I grew to hate it after the first burst of excitement turned into a nightmare of events.

Every time we consider how we will feel when we want something, we predict incorrectly what we want and how long the feeling will last. The result can be either positive or negative and we will then chase after our next happiness event because we are sure we will find it one day.

Sometimes our wants and likes work out, sometimes we are left with a miswanted perm that with time we grow to adore.

“In the world, there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants and the other is getting it.”~ Oscar Wilde (1893)

The only way we will find out what makes us happy is to continue miswanting until we get to the point we only want what we know we will like. And like it when we get it. Over and over again.

Enjoy the journey to knowing what you want and liking it when you get it.

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Passionate about climate change and living a debt-free, sustainable life. Determined to learn how to and build an adobe house or Earthship. The goal is to live off-grid and off the land. Energy for heat and to power electrical devices and appliances will use solar, wind, and hydro-powered electricity. No trees will die to make my home.

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