A Promise of Change
With an eye on our January theme of change and this week’s inaugural address of America’s new President—a man who campaigned on the promise of change—I feel it is necessary to offer a positive psychology perspective on the way in which we handle our expectations for change. As the United States ushers in a new political leader, many people across the world have high hopes for change, whether that be in an improved state of the world economy, substantial progress towards global peace, or a greater sense of purpose to get them out of bed tomorrow morning. Whatever the desired change may be, many people are wondering whether their high expectations can possibly be met.
Affective forecasting research suggests that our expectations related to emotional outcomes (i.e. changes that make us happier) are often too lofty. Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University and his colleagues have found that people overestimate their emotional reaction to a breakup with a romantic partner. Although they assume they will be unable to get out of bed, to eat, or to survive the day, when faced with the reality of a breakup, most people are able to continue on with life, albeit less happily. Eastwick and his team attribute this effect to an initial intensity bias, a tendency to exaggerate how strong our emotions will feel immediately following a change.
Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert finds that we also overestimate how long our emotional reactions to events will last. Studies by Gilbert and researchers at the Universities of Texas and Virginia find this duration neglect in response to rejection by a prospective employer and the defeat of one’s preferred candidate in an election. We tend not to be upset for as long as we expected. These are good rules of thumb to keep in mind whenever we have high hopes for change.
The Limitations of External Change
I believe that some of these findings are a result of our inability to accurately assess the effect of external changes on our internal condition. External changes refer to changes beyond the self. If your favorite sports team loses the big game or you find yourself rejected for a new position at work, you will expect to be devastated, but what you feel as you survive the disappointment will be more manageable than you imagined because the change was external, related to your environment and circumstances, but not to your character or identity.
Writing from the chilly Northeast as I daydream about sunny beaches, I am reminded of what the UC San Diego Rady School of Managment’s David Schkade and Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman found about expectations for well-being based on location. Study participants predicted that individuals living in Southern California are happier than those living in the Midwest, but the actual happiness data is the same. Anyone who has spent a morning scraping ice of her windshield has been jealous of bikini-clad beach dwellers. But moving to sunny California won’t make you significantly happier than you are now. Unless, that is, you leverage your newfound advantages.
Leveraging External Change
If we know that a new political administration or a move to a tropical location won’t live up to our expectations, should we all just become cynical about change and accept the mediocre status quo? Absolutely not! We know that expecting change can have great positive outcomes and positive psychology is grounded by the fundamental ability of humans to create change in their lives. The problem comes when we place too much of the responsibility for expected change in the hands of an external agent like California. However, if we leverage the external changes to help us initiate internal change—taking personal responsibility for the outcome—we can come much closer to meeting our expectations.
Imagine a grumpy lawyer named Susan who, after scraping the ice off her windshield one cold morning in Chicago, decides in a fit of frustration to transfer to her firm’s San Diego office in the hope of a better life. It should be obvious—now that we’re experts in affective forecasting—that a grump from Chicago who moves to San Diego will simply be a grump with a better suntan. But what if Susan uses the move to reinvigorate herself and begins taking up more outdoor activities like jogging and tennis. Perhaps she joins some local recreational teams, and makes wonderful friends. Susan could have made similar changes while in Chicago (perhaps substituting bowling for tennis), but the move to California inspired her to take advantage of her new surroundings. External changes can mean big differences when we use the shift as a source of inspiration and momentum for internal transformation. Then our expectations of change can be transformed into tremendous opportunities.
Taking Personal Responsibility
Let’s not kid ourselves. This is hard work. Grumpy Susan won’t make many friends unless she is committed to changing her attitude as well. But the hard work of internal change is where the real payoffs begin. President Obama stated in his Inaugural Address on Tuesday: “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.”
The President understands that he can only do so much and that the greatest change will be experienced by those who help create it. Those who idly sit back waiting for change should expect disappointment.
Draw your inspiration from your expectations for the external changes around you and use that to leverage your personal power for internal change. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Ghandi’s often-quoted suggestion reads so simply that it can be easily overlooked. Go back and read it again.
Acknowledgements: My humble gratitude to Alison Wood and Jason Zellner for their help with this month’s contribution.
Images: All images from David Niblack.
Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Krishnamurti, T., & Loewenstein, G. (2007). Mispredicting distress following romantic breakup: Revealing the time course of the affective forecasting error. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. doi: 101016/j.jesp.2007.07.001
Gilbert, D. T., Wilson, D. W., Pinel, E. C., Blumberg, S. J., & Wheatley, T. P. (1998). Immune neglect: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(3), 617-638.
Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does Living in California Make People Happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 9(5), 340-347.