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Why Counting on Your Dreams to Come True May Not Be Worth It

The paradox of "if only" thinking.

In childhood, most of us at some point propose something like this: "Dear God, if only you would grant me this one wish, then I will never ask for anything ever again." That wish is usually focused on a new pair of sneakers, permission to stay up late to watch a movie, or bringing a pet back to life. Whether that plea is granted or not, we may "if only" again and again, always anticipating the terminal bliss of some future blessing.

Older now, I catch myself in possibly more mature "if onlys" multiple times a day. This morning already, I counted three. If only they had sent what we ordered; if only we lived closer to grandma; and if only what can only be done in November could be done now. If only for that, everything would be okay.

The attempt to predict how we would feel in the future, "if only" something were different, is called affective forecasting. And our consistent failure to get this right is one of the most beautiful, but sad, mysteries of the mind.

We overestimate the future impact of winning sports competitions, of living in sunny places, and of losing loved ones. In the case of one-off events like winning or losing, the effect is often called the impact bias: We fail to recognize that dramatic events look really dramatic, in isolation, but that their true impact will take place among all of the more typical details of our lives. It is our affective response to the details that rules our moment-to-moment feelings.

For longer-term events like the weather, we simply fail to realize, again, that it's the details of life that rule the day. Watching a child learn to walk, driving in traffic, the taste of fresh mango, toilets that won't flush—our response to these things will overshadow the blinding lights of our "if onlys."

A study by Tim Wilson demonstrated this nicely by asking people how they would feel about a future event that then actually happened, like winning or losing against a rival university's football team. In one condition, some participants were asked to describe in detail the events of a typical future day before making their prediction about the future event; others were not. And the individuals who did not describe the mundane details of a future day overestimated the impact of the future events. Those who had the mundane details in mind were more accurate in their predictions, realizing the difference between reality and their mental hype.

The curious paradox is that when we are focused on future "if onlys" we tend to lose focus on the details of the present—including opportunities to improve our present situation, like paying bills, remembering to turn off the stove, buying toilet paper, not having another beer, and fixing that nagging toilet. These details influence our affective response to our present, every time we fail to do them.

More importantly, the details include doing the things that make life worth living in the first place, like letting the people around us know we appreciate them, taking our kids out for a bike ride, and giving the dog a kiss. "If onlys" can't make us do these things. They can never enhance the quality of the details we are living now, because they don't include them. But such day-to-day actions permeate our futures in ways that our dreaming never will.


Wilson et al. (2000). Focalism: A source of durability bias in affective forecasting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 821-836.

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