Ambigamy

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Nobel Prize Winner Weighs in on “Don’t Worry; Be Happy”

Kahneman: Nothing is as good or bad as it seems when you're thinking about it.

"In your life expect some trouble; when you worry it makes things double."

Bobby McFerrin singing “Don’t Worry; Be Happy”

"The Focus Illusion can be summed up in a single sentence: Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it."

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman 

McFerrin is philosophizing; Kahneman is summarizing empirical data, but both are addressing a practical problem we all face about when to focus on problems, in effect making them double, and when to ignore them bringing them back to their real size.

Kahneman’s findings need a little explaining as their implications are many, for delight as well as worry.

The shrink wrap effect:

Anticipating something wonderful is invariably more exciting than having it. We overestimate the joy of acquiring something because we overestimate how much attention we’ll give it once we have it. Focusing on its arrival, all shrink-wrapped, attention-grabbing, thrilling, and new makes it seem more important than it will be once we come to take it for granted.

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The shrunk life effect:

Conversely, anticipating a setback, our focused attention causes us to overestimate how long it will disappoint us. We forget that we’ll adjust to the setback. For example, people tend to overestimate how shrunk paraplegics’ lives will be a year after the accidents that put them in their wheelchairs. We overestimate how much paraplegics think about their condition and underestimate how much they will adjust to their lives and come to take their setback for granted. This is Bobby’s point: Because worry focuses your attention, when you worry, it makes setbacks double.

The Focus Illusion exaggerates all polling results, inflating our strong opinions in opposite directions. The light of our focused attention makes the highs look higher and the lows lower. When the pollster points your attention at something, you’ll make a bigger deal of it than you’ll make once your attention shifts to other matters.

The Focus Illusion also can make therapy distorting too. Hours spent on what's wrong may make what's wrong seem more important than it has to be. The effect is especially paradoxical for patients who seek therapy to feel better about their lives so they can get on with them. Freud said the healthy person loves and works. Loving to work on what's not working can get in the way of health.

Here’s a figurative graph, not based on real data but illustrating how the Focus Illusion works. In the “no focus” area, incremental changes in circumstances make for incremental changes in your feelings about your circumstances. But once your situation catches your attention, changes in your circumstances have an exaggerated effect on your mood.

The Focus Illusion
The Focus Illusion
 

In light of the Focus Illusion, how then should we live?

Obviously, focus on the positive; ignore the negative. In other words, don’t worry be happy. That way you go from thrilling to fine, not thrilling to awful.

But before we leave it at that, a little reality check. First, we don’t have full control over where we focus our attention. Second, it’s often good that we don’t, because attention to what’s bad is the spur that motivates us to make things better.

Indeed, focusing on the thrilling and the awful are two sides of the same self-mobilizing coin. We experience them not in isolation, but in comparative contrast to each other. Feeling awful about your situation, you’re in effect saying, “Wouldn’t it be thrilling to experience the opposite of this?” Feeling thrilled about your situation, you’re in effect saying “Wouldn’t it be awful to experience the opposite of this?” In this sense, the Focus Illusion doesn’t describe three states but two: Focusing on a contrast between what is and what could be, vs. not focusing on the contrast between what is and what could be.

Appreciating the good mobilizes you to protect and preserve it. When you appreciate the contrast between what you’ve got and the awful alternatives, you’ll work harder to defend the status quo. Yes, this can cause problems. Fanatical partnership can make you needy, clinging and desperate. Fanatical patriotism can make you belligerent, prickly and obnoxious. Still, to be thrilled about what’s worth preserving often puts the right fire in your belly.

And Bobby’s right that worry makes things double, but wrong that the prescription “don’t worry; be happy,” necessarily follows from it. Worry that makes things double can be very useful. To focus on what’s bad exaggerates its badness. The spur gets bigger, perhaps big enough to spur you to action sufficient to overcome inertia, to get over the hump and hump harder for true improvement. Fanatically disappointed partners can be nagging, unappreciative whiners. Fanatically unsatisfied protesters can be tedious pests. Still, to focus intensely on what’s worth changing often puts the right fire in your belly to make changes.

Focusing on the thrilling and the awful motives campaigns for change that if successful will tend toward the anti-climatic. The thrilled will discover that preserving the status quo wasn’t worth as much as they thought it would be when they were focused on preserving it. Life goes back to normal, and the shrink-wrap effect shrinks. And those who focused on their awful situation until they improved it will discover the shrink-wrap effect shrinking too. The improvement will only be thrilling at first, before they come to take the improvement for granted. Then the thrill is gone.

“Don’t worry; be happy” applies fruitfully to awful, but hard to change situations. If you find yourself focused on a bad, but seemingly un-improvable situation, try to find some distraction strong enough to shift your focus elsewhere. Given the Focus Illusion, maybe the situation is not as importantly bad as you think it is when you focus on it.

At minimum, “Don’t worry; be happy” is a good strategy for testing your motivation to change things. If at first you don’t succeed, try to ignore. If you don’t succeed at ignoring, then focus, exaggerate, and spur yourself to action, try, try, trying again to make the changes you overestimate will make a big difference, but even overestimated, might well be worth making.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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