Predicting Emotions: A Skill We Never Master


This article looks at our preoccupation with how we think we will feel in the future - from intoxicating anticipation to purest fear. These emotions stem from how we think we would feel should certain conditions arise. Studies suggest that we are generally incorrect in these predictions, yet we continue to plough huge quantities of effort into this forward thinking.

Poor Predictions

Our brains are equipped with a prefrontal cortex, a mental mechanism that grants us the unique ability to simulate emotional responses to events that are yet to take place. If you were to consider the prospect of life after losing a family member, or conversely, after winning the lottery, you would probably be confident as to how you would feel, given these eventualities; that would be your prefrontal cortex doing its job.

Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, followed up on a number of studies regarding prediction and found that getting what we want (what the prefrontal cortex has given the thumbs up to) tends to not lead to an increase in our happiness. At the same time, getting what we don’t want does not tend to lead to an increase in our sadness.

This is something that has already been partially known for decades within economics. Most of us labour under the preconceptions that having more money will make us happier, yet repeated evidence shows that any increase in income (beyond what is required to steer us out of poverty) does not lead to an increase in happiness. Despite these facts we are usually quite prepared to continue our pursuit for upward mobility.

Hope and Fear

If this is the case then two fundamental emotions seem questionable: fear and hope. These describe the extremes of the spectrum when it comes to considering the future. Jean-Paul Sartre, the existential, continental philosopher, believed that our world is fundamentally structured around our project for the future. In other words, each decision we make and every memory we form is created in order to confirm our expectations of tomorrow. As far as he was concerned, hope and fear make up the majority of our world. But what good is all this mental investment in the future when our predictions are probably wrong?

Hope and fear are two emotions that can play havoc with our current emotional state if taken too far. Both can drive us into anxiety and depression; fear can plunge us into anxiety through constant vigilance against potential danger and into depression through a sense of defeat and hopelessness. Hope, on the other hand, can have us anxiously and desperately peddling to reach impossible goals, or can drown us in depression when we decide that we are never going to succeed.

Why Concern Ourselves with Tomorrow?

We seem to invest an enormous quantity of psychic energy, so much so that we often ruin our health, in predictions that are probably incorrect. Why do we do this?

Consider the manically anxious, career-driven individual that loses out on family, friends, their love-life and any form of relaxation in the hope that they will, someday, have that position or that salary. Rational thinking tells us that getting there won’t provide any major improvement in that person’s life; indeed, the vacuum left behind after the effort of reaching this goal will probably harm their mental health.

Another familiar story would be the depressed individual that stays at home all day, every day in an emotional twilight for fear of being ridiculed if they were to stray outside. Once again, it is fairly simple to take the rational approach that this individual’s happiness would not be seriously compromised if said ridicule was to take place; if it even took place at all.

Research carried out years ago by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi confirmed this line of thought. ‘Experience sampling’ was an experiment in which a broad range of individuals were equipped with buzzers; these would go off 8 times throughout the day. As soon as they did, participants had to record how they were feeling at that exact moment. The outcome showed that when people were trying to enjoy themselves, they were least likely to enjoy themselves. Television was the main culprit; taking time out to relax in front of the box turned out to be a point at which many felt low or empty. It was the activities that tended to move towards a goal that proved to be the most rewarding, rather than the goals themselves.

This brings us to an age-old concept that we know as a species and yet repeatedly forget as individuals: ‘success is the journey not the destination’. It seems that people dedicate enormous psychic resources on the basis of predictions that will probably be wrong. Why? Because this is evolution’s most effective method for steering us away from harm and towards progress. It's important to note here that what is good for survival is not always good for happiness. We are programmed to survive; we are not programmed to be happy - that involves some real effort.

Predictions in Psychotherapy

There are some powerful ways in which psychotherapy and counselling can manage the strain of the prefrontal cortex on our emotions. One method is to drill down into predicted negative events such as ridicule, breakup, bereavement or disability. This involves taking a prediction, unpacking it to its theoretical conclusion and then fully describing what life would be like, given this turn of events.

A typical way of doing this is to describe an imaginary ‘day in the life’, once the predicted ‘event’ has occurred. A client would be asked to consider waking up, getting ready, seeing family off, going out the house, going to work; the whole day through to bedtime, all in the context of the ‘event’ having taken place. Once people start to see that, actually, the process of getting on with life will still be much the same as it is now - it will take the sting out of the prediction’s tail. Our brains make a deeper use of the capacity to ‘see’ future emotions and begin to realise that there is much, much more to life than this one dominating factor by which, in the past, we have been blinded.


Our obsession with the future is not a design fault; it’s one of the functions of our brains that make us as intelligent as we are. But it is important to remember that this function is there in order to spur us on to do work so that we can enjoy today and survive tomorrow; it is not an accurate reading of the future - far from it. While we should continue to be guided by our predictions, it can be of crucial importance that we realise that we will probably end up being fulfilled by the process of reaching goals or avoiding threats – not by any end result. Consequently, when the process starts to damage our sense of well-being, we need to realise that it is the precious present that actually provides us with enjoyment. We should be highly sceptical of our predictions, after which we can begin to assign ourselves new goals to reach, new threats to avoid – ones that provide us with fruitful and enjoyable labour in the now, not a world drowned in anxiety and depression due to thoughts of tomorrow.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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