Life involves anticipations. Hopes, dreads, lookings forward.

Looking forward and hoping seem pretty nice, but people are often wary of them, because hoping and then having your hopes fold can be miserable to the point of offsetting the original hope’s sweetness.

Even with very minor hopes: he who has harbored an inchoate desire to eat ice cream all day, coming home to find no ice cream in the freezer, may be more miffed than he who never tasted such hopes.

And this problem is made worse by that old fact that reality is just never like how you imagined it. If you fantasize, you can safely bet that whatever the future is is not your fantasy.

I have never suffered from any of this enough to put me off hoping and dreaming one noticable iota, but the gap between high hopes and reality can still hurt.

I sometimes like to think about these valenced imaginings of the future in a different way from that which comes naturally. I think of them as ‘movie posters’.

When you look fondly on a possible future thing, you have an image of it in your mind, and you like the image.

The image isn’t the real thing. It’s its own thing. It’s like a movie poster for the real thing.

Looking at a movie poster just isn’t like watching the movie. Not just because it’s shorter—it’s just totally different—in style, in content, in being a still image rather than a two hour video. You can like the movie poster or not totally independently of liking the movie.

It’s fine to like the movie poster for living in New York and not like the movie. You don’t even have to stop liking the poster. It’s fine to adore the movie poster for ‘marrying Bob’ and not want to see the movie. If you thrill at the movie poster for ‘starting a startup’, it just doesn’t tell you much about how the movie will be for you. It doesn’t mean you should like it, or that you have to try to do it, or are a failure if you love the movie poster your whole life and never go. (It’s like five thousand hours long, after all.)

This should happen a lot. A lot of movie posters should look great, and you should decide not to see the movies.

A person who looks fondly on the movie poster for ‘having children’ while being perpetually childless could see themselves as a sad creature reaching in vain for something they may not get. Or they could see themselves as right there with an image that is theirs, that they have and love. And that they can never really have more of, even if they were to see the movie. The poster was evidence about the movie, but there were other considerations, and the movie was a different thing. Perhaps they still then bet their happiness on making it to the movie, or not. But they can make such choices separate from cherishing the poster.

This is related to the general point that ‘wanting’ as an input to your decisions (e.g. ‘I feel an urge for x’) should be different to ‘wanting’ as an output (e.g. ‘on consideration I’m going to try to get x’). This is obvious in the abstract, but I think people look in their heart to answer the question of what they are on consideration pursuing. Here as in other places, it is important to drive a wedge between them and fit a decision process in there, and not treat one as semi-implying the other.

This is also part of a much more general point: it’s useful to be able to observe stuff that happens in your mind without its occurrence auto-committing you to anything. Having a thought doesn’t mean you have to believe it. Having a feeling doesn’t mean you have to change your values or your behavior. Having a persistant positive sentiment toward an imaginary future doesn’t mean you have to choose between pursuing it or counting it as a loss. You are allowed to decide what you are going to do, regardless of what you find in your head.