Working in the future imperfect

The aesthetically and intellectually compelling PsyBlog has a great article arguing that long-term career planning is often a waste of time as research has shown that we are unlikely to be able to predict what will make us happy in the future.

The research was a paper from Daniel Gilbert’s lab, that specifically studies happiness, how we understand it, and how it is affected by life events and our choices.

Gilbert has written a book about his research called Stumbling on Happiness that discusses the fact that although we think we know what will make us happy, it rarely does.

PsyBlog notes one particular experiment that highlights this effect:

My favourite is a simple experiment in which two groups of participants get free sandwiches if they participate in the experiment – a doozie for any undergraduate.

One group has to choose which sandwiches they want for an entire week in advance. The other group gets to choose which they want each day. A fascinating thing happens. People who choose their favourite sandwich each day at lunchtime also often choose the same sandwich. This group turns out to be reasonably happy with its choice.

Amazingly, though, people choosing in advance assume that what they’ll want for lunch next week is a variety. And so they choose a turkey sandwich Monday, tuna on Tuesday, egg on Wednesday and so on. It turn out that when next week rolls around they generally don’t like the variety they thought they would. In fact they are significantly less happy with their choices than the group who chose their sandwiches on the day.

The PsyBlog post draws these findings out and applies them to making career choices.

How will we know what make us happy in even 5 years away if we can’t even predict what sandwiches we’d be most happy with during the following week?

Link to PsyBlog post ‘Why Career Planning Is Time Wasted’.

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