The psychology of adaptation

Things will rarely be as good as we hope or as bad as we fear.

On the morning of 24th June 2016, I was devastated. Britain had voted for Brexit. This was no longer the country I thought it was. The future for me and my children had shrunk immeasurably. That same morning, the fates dictated that it was my then nine-year-old son’s class assembly. He and his classmates sang the Vera Lynn classic ‘We’ll Meet Again’. You really couldn’t make it up. Rather to my embarrassment, I found myself in uncontrollable floods of tears.

That same morning, introducing the BBC’s coverage of the aftermath, Andrew Marr’s first words were: ‘Whichever way you voted, it will probably not be as good as you hope or as bad as you fear’. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but how true those words were. Five years on, Brexit doesn’t play much of a role in my thoughts or feelings. I still think it was a bad idea with no great upside. But in truth the direct negative impacts on my life fall into the category of minor irritation rather than major catastrophe. Overall, my experienced happiness and life satisfaction are significantly higher than they were at the start of 2016. Brexit is now just part of the furniture. If you’d offered me the chance on 24th June 2016 to reverse Brexit, I’d have paid you a lot to do so. Today, not so much. In fact, the impact of Brexit on my happiness today: about zero.

What’s going on? The facts about Brexit are largely as I anticipated them: a significant economic cost, loss of valuable and dynamic EU migrants, restriction of future freedom of movement for my family. But I misjudged the impact on my happiness badly. According to Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, this was because of two key biases.

Focalism: the tyranny of the here and now

One bias is focalism: the tendency to focus on a single thing or event to the exclusion of all else. On the morning of 24th June, Brexit was the only thing I’d been thinking about, so it played an outsized role in my evaluations of how I was feeling then, but as importantly, how I believed I would feel about it in the future. But in practice, the occasions on which EU membership (or not) impacts my life in any tangible way are rather rare. The costs of Brexit are generally diffuse rather than acute.

Let’s take another example. Which of the four home nations would you most like to live in? Few British people living on the mainland would likely choose Northern Ireland. News about the province is dominated by reports of sectarian division and Brexit-induced trade disruption. Yet according to data from the Office for National Statistics Northern Ireland is the home nation with highest life satisfaction, happiness, sense of life being worthwhile and the lowest levels of anxiety. Of the 11 council areas in Northern Ireland, four rank in the top 10% for life satisfaction in the UK and all but one is in the top half. For most people living in Northern Ireland, the political difficulties we see so much about are secondary to the benefits of strong communities and good quality of life. For those of us looking in from the outside, they dominate our evaluation of what life in Northern Ireland must be like — focalism is at play.

Immune neglect: the denial of our own reslience

The other bias highlighted by Gilbert is immune neglect. Human psychology has evolved to be almost infinitely adaptable. Both up and down: we get used to the good stuff and the bad stuff. Our minds are designed to come back into equilibrium, even if we have to kid ourselves to do this.

So with Brexit, I’ve rationalised that the direct impacts on me are rather small. During the EU vaccine procurement debacle I’ve even convinced myself there may be some upsides. I’ve argued to myself that respecting people’s democratically expressed wishes is far more important than the outcome. I’ve made a conscious decision to move on from the question and not focus on it. As a result, my psychological immune system has fought off Brexit fever.

The remarkable thing about our psychological immune system is how strong it is (this TedEx talk by Dan Gilbert is a great introduction). Not only do we psychologically adapt to minor setbacks (poor grades, not getting a job and so on), studies show we also adapt to the most extraordinary hardships such as serious injury or disease diagnosis.

But we repeatedly underestimate this superpower. Despite the fact that, time and again in our lives, things are never as good as we hope or as bad as we fear, we always think that this time will be different. In her excellent course on the Science of Wellbeing, Laurie Santos identifies this last factor as the most insidious. We fail to learn about our ability to adapt psychologically. This leads us both to crave things that won’t have the positive impact we hope and to avoid things that won’t have the negative impact we fear. Both tendencies can impair our wellbeing.

Psychological adaptation and the successful professional

The combination of focalism and immune neglect means we consistently overestimate the positive and negative impact that events will have on our happiness in both extent and duration. What are the implications for professionals looking to use their success to live the life they want to lead?

First, we desire the wrong things. Another promotion, more money, a second home in Italy, a new car, a six-pack, A N Other future utopia. When thinking about these things, focalism causes us to overestimate their impact on our lives. The reality inevitably disappoints. The ability of signature purchases or particular life outcomes of any type to significantly affect our happiness is suprisingly limited. Happiness is affected much more by our day-to-day experiences, relationships, social connections, sense of community and purpose, and good health. And by our own attitudes, which we take with us wherever we go.

Second, we take too little risk. Professionals are by nature a conservative bunch. Used to living by other people’s rules it can be tough for us to break out on our own. This is why getting the right mindset to live the life you want to lead is so important. But it’s hard to do. Too little risk may have implications in a number of areas of our lives: in our career choices, in our relationships, in our investment strategy. I remember a few years ago how risky it felt to leave PwC when I did and to move out of the furrow that for me was so well ploughed. Looking back now, that seems nonsense.

Psychological adaptation is a superpower. We can use it to take more risk to pursue what will make us truly happy. But to use this superpower to enhance our wellbeing, we need to know about it and believe in it. Sadly, that seems quite hard to do.