Tell me if you’ve ever had this sort of thought: “If X doesn’t happen, I’m going to be miserable.”
Or “I’ll be so happy if only Y happens.”
I think this is a common thought pattern and it make a lot of sense. Predicting future emotions helps us prepare for them. But these predictions underlie a certain emotional dependency that we should all guard against.
To illustrate, consider the college football fan.
The Psychology of Saturdays
There are large swaths of the country where people treat college football as a Saturday religion. It’s a beautiful, communal experience. People wear the team colors, play the fight songs, festoon their cars with flags and bumper stickers and meet in parking lots or beautiful green lawns to tailgate for the big game. The energy is infectious. Everyone becomes a part of something. And for many, the hype starts as early as Monday morning—five days ahead of time. You go to work or school and you talk about the big game and what the team is going to do against their hated interstate rival.
Meanwhile, the folks in that other town, who cheer for the rival, do the same. The activity swells in both communities as the days go by. There are countless petty arguments. People place wagers, pack coolers, purchase tickets, make vows.
The buildup becomes so powerful that you actually feel anxiety in the minutes before kickoff.
And if you just so happen to cheer for a team that has a grand celebratory tradition, full of pageantry and fireworks and the band on the field, those last few moments before kickoff raise the intensity to ecstatic heights. Goosebumps, loud noises, lots of fun. So much fun.
Then comes the kickoff, punctuated by the loud boom of a cannon, and the cheering stops. Te stadium goes silent. All the fans take a seat in the bleachers and calmly observe the next four hours of competition in quiet repose. You can hear the birds chirping in the distant trees.
What really happens, of course, is that all the fans across the globe launch into a deeply-engaged trance for the entire game. Their emotions ebb and flow with the game’s twists and turns. There are moments of outrage for one side, ecstasy for the other. Back and forth it goes.
At the end, one team wins and the other team loses and we, the fans, gladly accept those outcomes and quietly leave the stadium to resume our lives. Without any residual effect.
Again, just kidding.
In truth, when the game is over, one team wins and the fans ride a sweet emotional high that carries them into the next week. It’s astonishing how happy these games can make you when you’re really invested in a team. I think fandom is about chasing that feeling at every turn.
But as great as those highs are, the lows are just as profound. For the losing team, the weekend is ruined. Completely and totally ruined. The effect is fascinating. The world fades into a sad monochrome and the sun no feels longer warm. For many days that follow, there is nothing to enjoy, nothing to appreciate.
I wish I were kidding.
The Agony of (Other People’s) Defeat
Blame it on the cortisol. It’s literal, biochemical stress. As explained by experts in this article,
A few studies have shown that sports fans can have intense anxiety before a big game, just like the players themselves. This includes both cognitive anxiety and somatic anxiety, like butterflies in the stomach or other physical expressions of anxiety.
That’s what happens before the game.
And in Canada, where hockey carries the same emotional weight, cardiologists observed the game’s powerful effect on a person’s heart. When a game was close, dramatic, and in its final minutes, the average observer’s blood pressure and heart rate increased to a level that carries real risk to anyone in a fragile cardiovascular state.
That’s what happens during the game.
All of which is understandable. And frankly, part of the fun. Whether a team wins or loses, the build-up and hype is a shared experience that really brings people together. The drama of the event itself is what makes sports so much more engaging than any scripted entertainment. So the big game? The big moment? Those are wonderful.
It’s the post-game depression that is the real issue here.
Or is it?
I’m Going To Be Miserable If …
I have one more sports-related anecdote before this article shifts to a broader application. In Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, he describes the findings of a research project focused on the critical factors affecting a sports fan’s emotional resiliency. The findings are not sports-specific, however; the dynamics affect any of us when we imagine how we will feel leading into the big moments on our horizon.
To briefly summarize, researchers divided the fans of a certain team into two groups and asked them how they would feel a few days after their team won or lost their game. Whatever the outcome, the question was designed to gauge the fans’ ability to predict their future emotional state. This type of prediction is known as affective forecasting.
Gilbert provides some additional detail about the experiment:
Before making these predictions, one group of students (the describers) was asked to describe the events of a typical day, and one group of students (the nondescribers) was not.
This seems rather odd, doesn’t it? What do the events of a typical day have to do with one’s feelings about a team’s future win or loss? The results say a great deal about emotional expectations:
A few days later the students were asked to report how happy they actually were, and the results showed that only the nondescribers had drastically overestimated the impact that the win or loss would have on them.
Why is that? As Gilbert writes (emphasis added):
The nondescribers were focused on one and only one aspect of the future—the outcome of the football game—and they failed to imagine the other aspects of the future that would influence their happiness.
The importance, I think, is that the typical sports fan lives for the big game and typically does not imagine anything that occurs afterward. Everything about their near-term future is built upon this singular event. Why not? It’s all they and their friends talk about leading up to the moment. The game practically defines their entire weekend.
This is perfectly understandable.
To expand this beyond sports, imagine the earnest student who prepares all week for the big exam. They can’t imagine anything afterward. Their focus is entirely on that test.
Or maybe it’s an interview.
Or a wedding. It may sound strange but there are many instances where a couple focuses more on the big day than they focus on the forty-plus years of life they’ll have afterward. Wedding planners see it quite a bit, the desire for a “pinterest-perfect” event overrides any attention towards, you know, the actual marriage.
But what if the details don’t unfold as you imagine?
What if it rains?
What if the wedding cake collapses?
What if you don’t ace the test?
We don’t need The Beatles to remind us that life goes on in the wake of these big moments but we do need to consider the common error that arises in the lead-up. With all the anticipation that goes into those moments, we easily forget that anything can or will happen afterward. Worse yet, our anticipation prevents us from remembering that there is a broader slice of our lives that is guaranteed to make us feel happiness regardless of how the big event goes down.
The advice then is to remember that your big moment is just that: a moment. Enjoy it! But don’t forget that it is but one component of your emotional experience.
Personally speaking, I used to make this mistake all the time. I used to narrow my focus so deeply on The Big Moment that I would forget about the normal life on the other side. Because I love those moments. I love the intensity and preparation that leads to a performance of some kind. I savor the tension, the outcome, the butterflies in my stomach. There’s such focus on that singular moment that I ignore all the others that follow.
This contributes to the horrible emotional dependency that affects so many of us when something, anything, doesn’t go our way. So is it the depression that’s the problem? The feeling of grief after the big game. No, I think it’s the faulty mindset leading into the game itself and the dependency we create between our emotions and our desired outcomes.
That dependency is a big reason why the Stoics regularly championed the act of negative visualization.
That helps. But it as the research shows, it might help us to also practice a bit of normal visualization.
Whatever happens, think about the normalcy that emerges a few days later. Think about the small, regular aspects of life that will continue to be a durable source of happiness. If the wedding is a bust, and the plans fall through, just remember that your soon-to-be spouse is going to be the same person three days from now when you’re enjoying one of your regular conversations.
You may say to yourself that there’s nothing about the normal days that you enjoy.
You may say that The Big Moment was all about changing your normal days, your normal existence.
People often feel this when The Big Moment is a job interview. The idea is that, if you land the job, it will completely change your life by allowing you to escape the tortured existence of the current work and move into something so much better, so very perfect.
This is another aspect of affective forecasting that Gilbert studies a great deal in the book. And as you can imagine, this sort of thinking has even deeper flaws. To put it simply for today, whatever “normal” is today is likely going to be very similar to the “normal” you have tomorrow. No matter what job you have.
Because while jobs can be changed rather quickly, we’re still the same people. For a while.
So the best thing I can advise with this article is to consider the normalcy. Remember the various sources of happiness that surround you. The big game is fun. The big day is meaningful. The big moments are deeply rewarding. And sometimes painful.
But if you practice a little bit of normal visualization, and imagine all that ways that life goes on afterward, you’ll reduce your emotional dependency, enhance your resiliency, and still have plenty of bandwidth to enjoy those moments for what they truly are: moments.