This section deals with how hard it is to actually imagine the future. Sure, we all do it, but we all do it pretty damned poorly. For one, we don't accurately predict the passage of time and its consequences (see prior posts). We also tend to project whatever we are feeling and thinking into the future, disregarding that our feelings and thoughts may (and will) be different when it arrives. If you're asked to predict something while you're in a bad mood it is likely your prediction will be pessimistic. Consider the following two quotes from the book.
For instance, if we try to imagine a penguin while we are looking at an ostrich, the brain's policy won't allow it. We understand this, and thus we never become confused and mistakenly conclude that the large bird with the long neck that we are currently seeing is, in fact, the penguin that we were attempting to imagine. The visual experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called vision; the visual experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called mental imagery; and while both kinds of experiences are produced in the visual cortex, it takes a great deal of vodka before we mix them up. One of the hallmarks of a visual experience is that we can almost always tell whether it is the product of a real or an imagined object. But not so with emotional experience.Another issue we don't account for in our future happiness is that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. We may want to win the lottery, but as we all know from endless news reports about such things, we'd probably end up being some broke basket case on Geraldo. Yet when we plan for our future happiness, we often choose a path similar to a child's wishing for "Chocolate every meal!"
You've probably been in a similar conundrum yourself. You've had an awful day - the cat peed on the rug, the dog peed on the cat, the washing machine is busted, 'World Wrestling' has been preempted by 'Masterpiece Theatre' - and you naturally feel out of sorts. If at that moment you try to imagine how much you would enjoy playing cards with your buddies the next evening, you may mistakenly attribute feelings that are due to the misbehavior of real pets and real appliances ('I feel annoyed') to your imaginary companions ('I don't think I'll go because Nick always ticks me off'). Indeed, one of the hallmarks of depression is that when depressed people think about future events, they cannot imagine liking them very much. Vacation? Romance? A night on the town? No thanks, I'll just sit here in the dark. Their friends get tired of seeing them flail about in a thick blue funk, and they tell them that this too shall pass, that it is always darkest before the dawn, that every dog has its day, and several other important clichés. But from the depressed person's point of view, all the flailing makes perfectly good sense because when she imagines the future, she finds it difficult to feel happy today and thus difficult to believe that she will feel happy tomorrow.
Among life's cruelest truths is this one: Wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition. Just compare the first and last time your child said 'Mama' or your partner said 'I love you' and you'll know exactly what I mean. When we have an experience - hearing a particular sonata, making love with a particular person, watching the sun set from a particular window of a particular room - on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declinging marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage. But human beings have discovered two devices that allow them to combat this tendency: variety and time. One way to beat habituation is to increase the variety of one's experiences ('Hey, honey, I have a kinky idea - let's watch the sun set from the kitchen this time'). Another way to beat habituation is to increase the amount of time that separates repetitions of the experience. Clinking champagne glasses and kissing one's spouse at the stroke of midnight would be a relatively dull exercise were it to happen every evening, but if one does it on New Year's Eve and then allows a full year to pass before doing it again, the experience will offer an endless bouguet of delights because a year is plenty long enough for the effects of habituation to disappear.