Why the "Biden High" Is Wearing Off for Some Voters

Research tells us why we’re never as happy as we think we’re going to be.

Posted Nov 25, 2020

As Biden’s historic win quickly disappears into the rearview mirror, many of those who voted for him may be finding the initial rush of excitement fading, if not disappearing altogether.

Already the days and Twitter feeds are easing back to the usual chaos. Instead of celebrating in the streets and honking horns, those who voted for Biden are hearing ambient developments about a chaotic transition. In the weeks since the Associated Press called the election, the Trump campaign has continued to pursue lawsuits across Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, while refusing Biden’s transition team access to federal resources until only recently. Even now, Trump has yet to officially concede.

Drew Anderson / Pexels
Source: Drew Anderson / Pexels

It's likely that some voters are feeling disappointed by how short-lived November’s news has felt for them, particularly as Georgia’s runoff races carry uncertainty about Senate control into the holiday. But such feelings of disappointment, even after one's side scored a victory, aren’t anything to be ashamed of. In fact, science tells us they are actually 100 percent normal.

As a cognitive scientist by training, I specialize in how people cope with stress and anxiety. And it’s clear to me why the "emotional aftermath" of this election has already taken many people by surprise.

That’s because in general, humans are never as happy as we think we’re going to be. Or for as long. Studies conducted by Harvard psychologist and happiness expert Daniel Gilbert tell us that when we look forward to something, the joy we feel when we finally get the outcome we’ve been hoping for tends to be less intense and less prolonged than what we anticipated.

Consider, for example, the New Year’s Eve plans that didn’t live up to their hype. Or the first date that turned out to be just okay. Or finally landing that big promotion, only to go to bed wondering, “Great, so what’s next?” Oftentimes, we struggle to accurately predict our emotions about future events. Not as happy as we had hoped or expected to be, we wind up feeling confused or disappointed.

The same is true for negative events. In a study conducted by my Ph.D. advisor Tom Carr in the two months leading up to the 2004 U.S. Presidential election, for example, he and his research group asked Michigan State University students to predict how they would feel, depending on the election results, two weeks following election day. When asked again, those who supported John Kerry consistently overestimated how badly impacted their emotional state would be by President Bush’s victory.

To some, the fleeting nature of happiness may seem disheartening. But it doesn’t have to be. As my own research shows, by understanding your emotional process through major, "make-or-break" moments like this election and the chaotic days that have since followed, you can reframe your feelings the very moment you start feeling a little differently.

First, embrace that your emotions are—and will probably stay—in flux. For a while. That’s neither a bad thing, nor a negative reflection of your character or commitment to your values.

Second, try practicing some “self-distancing.” In some cognitive behavioral therapy practices, patients are urged to talk to themselves in third- versus first-person while processing unexpected emotions. The idea, as psychologist and researcher Ethan Cross puts it, is to create some distance between the patient and their own “a psychologically immersed perspective” so they can try to reason through their experience more objectively. We are often way meaner to ourselves than others and the goal is to give ourselves a break for feeling what we do.

Third, write. Decades of research have shown that acknowledging through writing what we are going through can help us realize that what we are going through and feeling is actually OK. This in turn helps you to reduce your cognitive load, creating more room in the brain to harbor productive thoughts.

For example, you might take stock of the record number of people (especially young people) who cast ballots this year and appreciate democracy in action. You might also think of the various aspects of the process (phone-banking, poll-working, even having impassioned discussions about the issues of the day) you specifically were a part of during election season. It is good to remind yourself of all the positive experiences you’ve had over the last several months.

It’s also good for our emotional outlook to look forward to specific things we plan to accomplish in the future, practicing self-compassion all the while so that we can better regulate our emotions about their outcomes. Perhaps, you’ll commit more of your time and resources to help a cause you are passionate about. Or perhaps you’ll simply decide to learn more about a particular issue. Simply put, looking forward to specific and attainable goals can help us increase happiness.