(Is Like Trying to Predict the Weather)
If you ask
a coach to describe how coaching works, the answer is often
that the work is client-driven. Perhaps, “I help clients
reach their most important goals.” A fundamental assumption
of coaching is that our healthy, resourceful coaching clients
come to us with the ability to choose good coaching goals.
We assume that our clients are able to predict what will enrich
the quality of their lives. However, interesting research in
the area of “affective forecasting” by Nobel Laureate
Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, and others
suggests that most of us are surprisingly inaccurate when it
comes to predicting how we will experience future events.
forecasting refers to our ability to predict (or forecast)
the emotional impact of a future event. How devastating will
it be if we fail to get tenure? How rewarding will it be if
we do? How bad would we feel if our partner ended our romance?
If we take the plunge and work part-time, how much will we
enjoy our extra free time? How great will it feel when we finally
lose those 20 pounds? And how long will those feelings last?
forecasting is an extraordinarily important component of professional
and personal decision making. Almost every major decision you
have ever made was based, in part, on how you thought it would
make you feel in the future. Often on whether it would lastingly
increase your happiness and wellbeing.
we routinely factor in the future emotional consequences of
events when making decisions, it is reasonable to expect that
frequent practice would improve our forecasting abilities.
As it turns out, this is not the case. People consistently
make systematic errors in affective forecasting. Consider some
striking examples of what poor affective forecasters we are:
We can’t always predict what achievements are
necessary for job satisfaction. For example, academics pursuing
tenure believe that life will be much, much better if they achieve
this goal. They will have the freedom to study the things that
most interest them, and they will have job security in an insecure
world. However, Daniel Gilbert and colleagues (1998) found that
contrary to their predictions, former assistant professors who
were passed over for tenure were ultimately no less happy than
their tenured colleagues.
Have you ever returned from a glorious vacation in
a tropical climate only to question your sanity? Why endure winter
after winter when you could be living in Fiji? (Or at least California?)
As it turns out, where we live is not as important as most real
estate agents would have us believe! Californians are no happier
than Midwesterners (Schkade & Kahneman 1998). We even tend
to overestimate even the impact of more trivial decisions about
location. For example, Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues (2003) demonstrated
that college students vastly overestimated the impact that their
dorm assignment would have on their quality of life. Students
predicted that being assigned to a more conveniently located,
physically attractive dorm would make them happier, when, in
fact, it made no difference at all.
make a difference, however, were the friendships they made.
Indeed, nurturing and fostering social relationships may be
one of the most powerful things we can do to boost our own
happiness levels. For research that supports the relationship
between social relationships and happiness, see Biswah-Diener & Diener,
2001; Myers, 1999; Diener & Seligman, 2002; and Sheldon,
Elliot, Kim, & Kasser, 2001.
When are we going to learn that money doesn’t
buy happiness? Even the effects of winning the ultimate unlikely
jackpot--the lottery--are fleeting (Brickman, Coaes, &Janoff-Bulmna,
1978). The first $40,000, of course, does buy happiness. Moving
from zero--a street person with no resources--to $25,000, for
example has a huge impact on life satisfaction. But after a certain
point, there is virtually no effect. Perhaps the most convincing
evidence that money doesn’t buy happiness comes not from
a psychologist but from the economist Richard Easterlin. His
large-scale surveys of nations and individuals indicate that
as people grow richer they do NOT grow happier (provided that
they did not start off below the poverty line). You can download
some of Easterlin’s articles yourself on his website: http://www-rcf.usc.edu/~easterl/
Why Are We
Poor Affective Forecasters?
of Daniel Gilbert and others suggests that we humans tend to
make a systematic error in judgment which he calls impact bias.
Impact bias is our tendency to predict that future events will
have a more intense and longer lasting impact on our emotions
than they actually do. In other words, we are biased when it
comes to predicting the hedonic impact of future events. Gilbert
identifies two primary reasons why we show impact bias in our
have what Gilbert calls a psychological immune system that
protects us from protracted misery. After something unpleasant
happens, such as being bypassed for a desired promotion, we
begin to consider the silver linings in the cloud. Perhaps
that promotion would have meant more late evenings at work
and less time with the family.
that we are able to engage our psychological immune system
is adaptive. For those readers who are former Authentic Happiness
Coaching students, remember the power of the “One Door
Closes, Another Door Opens” exercise. Not only are these
rationalizations (for lack of a better word) adaptive, they
may very well be accurate. The downsides to that promotion
were there all along, but we did not attend to them until after
We show impact
bias in our judgments because we fail to take into account
our active psychological immune system. When asked how we will
feel in the face of a future, unpleasant event, we fail to
take into account our own resiliency.
have tunnel vision.
When we try
to forecast our emotional reaction to an event, we tend to
zero in on the event itself and forget about all the background
noise in our lives. For example, when considering what it would
be like to win a million dollars, we zero in on the glorious
day that we receive the check. What we do not take into account
are the myriad life events that fill up our time and dampen
the impact of the event. No matter what happens—good
or bad—we will continue to eat meals, run errands, attend
doctor’s appointments, etc. Life goes on, but we systematically
fail to recognize this when considering the impact of a future
work of Gilbert and others, we can extract some tips for working
with our coaching clients:
about impact bias and affective forecasting. Many professionals
and many clients, at least implicitly, believe that if they
can just increase their wealth or take their careers to the
next level, then they will be happy. Though we can still support
clients in achieving such goals, we can also inform them that
if happiness is the ultimate goal, then more money and more
promotions are not the ticket. (Social relationships, on the
other hand, are powerful predictors of happiness.)
clients to obtain more objective sources of information about
the impact of their goals. When clients are generating their
goals and contemplating “What do I want?” we can
remind them of impact bias. Rather than attempting to project
themselves into the future to imagine how they might feel,
they are better served to interview another person who has “been
there.” In an interesting series of studies, Gilbert
found that even a randomly selected stranger who has actually
experienced the event in question is more reliable than objective
information or our own imagination.
of our jobs as coaches can be to encourage clients to collect
slices of reality in the form of interviews when they are in
the goal-setting stage of coaching. If your client wants to
make a career change and become, say, a coach, then a good
homework assignment would be to interview five coaches about
the pros and cons of the job. If your client’s goal is
to re-craft her job so that she can work from home, whom could
she interview with experience on making this switch? Do they
really get to spend more time with their kids? What are the
pros and cons?
We have all
heard the saying that true insanity comes from doing the same
thing over and over and expecting different results. Might
I suggest a corollary for the coaching world? True discontent
comes from holding onto the same goals that never made us happy
in the first place. In other words, true discontent may come
from the expectation that MORE money, a bigger house, or more
recognition at work will make us happy in the future when our
current lives are rich with evidence to the contrary.
R., & Diener, E. (2001). Making the best of a bad situation:
Satisfaction in the slums of Calcutta. Social Indicators
Research, 55, 329-352.
Diener, E., & Seligman,
M.E.P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science,
Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2003). Location, location,
location: The misprediction of satisfaction in housing lotteries. Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29 (11), 1421-1432.
D.T., Pinel, E.C., Wilson, T.D., Blumber, S.J., & Wheatley,
T.P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in
affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 75, 617-638.
(1999). Closer relationships and quality of life. In D. Kahneman,
E. Diener, & N. Schwarz. (Eds.), Well-being: The Foundations
of Hedonic Psychology (pp. 374-391). New York: Russell
R. J., Gilbert, D.T., & Wilson, T. (2005). Surrogation:
An antidote for errors in affective forecasing. Manuscript
D. A. & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California
make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life
satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9 (5), 340-529.
K.M., Elliot, A.J., Kim, Y., & Kasser, T. (2001). What
is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidate
psychological needs. Journal of Personality & Social
Psychology, 80, 325-339.
E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., is Fox Leadership Professor
of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the founder
of the field of Positive Psychology, a Past President of
the American Psychological Association (1998), and the author
of 22 books including his most recent best seller, Authentic
Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your
Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. With Chris Peterson, he
is co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues: A Classification
and Handbook. He is the co-founder Reflective Happiness LLC.
Dean Ph.D., is a psychologist, coach, and the founder
of MentorCoach LLC. He speaks on coaching throughout the
US and publishes two free coaching e-newsletters: "The
Therapist as Coach" for helping professionals (www.mentorcoach.com), "The
eCoach Newsletter" for interdisciplinary professionals
the forthcoming "Coaching Toward Happiness" e-newsletter.
Coaching since 1981, he is a Master Certified Coach, the
highest designation of the International Coach Federation.
With Dr. Seligman, Ben is co-founder of Authentic Happiness
Happiness LLC. Dr. Seligman's new website, www.reflectivehappiness.com,
is focused on helping members lead more fulfilling and satisfying
lives. For the Reflective Happiness community, Marty has
designed a Happiness Plan for each member that can accurately
measure, improve and sustain their emotional well-being for
a more fulfilling and satisfying life. The website also has
Happiness Building Exercises, Question & Answer Sessions
with Marty, Community Building forums, a Positive Psychology
Book Club, and a members-only newsletter covering the latest
developments that Marty has found in the field. For more
details, see www.reflectivehappiness.com.
LLC. Dr. Dean founded MentorCoach in 1997. It is
an internationally recognized coach training school focused
on training helping professionals to develop rewarding coaching
practices. The 31-week Summer MentorCoach Training Program
with D'Arcy Vanderpool begins (via teleconference) on Tuesday,
August 2nd at 12:00 PM Eastern. Fall Programs begin Wednesday,
September 29th at 8:00PM Eastern and Thursday, September
29th at 12:00 PM Eastern. For more details, see www.mentorcoach.com.
E. P. Seligman, Ph.D.
will be speaking in:
University of Bergen, August 30, 2005
3rd Norwegian Congress of Psychology, September 1, 2005
(Radisson), Sept 5-6, 2005
Ohio, Butler County Commissioner's Forum, Sept 16, 2005
Tennessee, Centerstone, Loews Vanderbilt Hotel, September
D.C. Positive Psychology Summit, Gallup Headquarters, September
30-Oct 2, 2005
UK, The Pacific Institute Global Conference, November 11,
Tennessee,Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, Marriott, November 30,
California, Evolution of Psychotherapy, Erickson Foundation,
Convention Center, December 9-10, 2005
will be speaking on "Coaching and the New Science of
NJ, Hilton Woodbridge, July 22, 2005
OH, Hilton Columbus, July 24, 2005
NC, Radisson at Research Triangle Park, September 9, 2005
GA, Sheraton Buckhead, September 11, 2005
VA, Hyatt Arlington, September 25, 2005
details, visit www.mentorcoach.com.