Daniel Gilbert
Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness

by Daniel Gilbert, 336 pages

Finished on 13th of August, 2023
🛒 Buy here
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A Harvard professor of psychology explains in a funny and entertaining way how much we get wrong when we imagine our future emotional states. You have to derive your own conclusions from this, but it raises a lot of awareness for our weird brains.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The part of our brain which gives us the ability to imagine the future makes us unique among all animals and was the last to develop, therefore being highly flawed.
  2. Our brains pull lots of tricks on us to give us the illusion of being in control, e.g. by leaving information out or filling information in; meaning we can’t properly trust them.
  3. The present is all we have, because imagining what might make us happy in the future is unlikely to be true.

🎨 Impressions

I think we’re all searching for something that will make us happy. This author, a Harvard professor of psychology, even spends his whole career on the topic of what our brains scientifically do to create that happiness emotion and finds out that it’s so much more complicated than we think. As always the case with things that appear easy from the outside. One of the most memorable lines was this one: “Among life’s cruelest truths is this one: wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.”

It’s clearly not easy to be happy. Our brains won’t let us, and they are not the only pieces in the equation which stop us from it. There are useful societal and evolutionary mechanisms at play which prevent us from becoming happy in order to keep everything stable and the species alive. But this book only touches this aspect by giving a few of Adam Smith’s insights on happiness and its relation to economics and capitalism.

The frustrating part is that this is actually a book about how flawed our brains are. They are weird and can’t be trusted with anything! Our memories of the past are constructions of facts mixed with imagination. Our view of ourselves in the present is far off, e.g. 94% of people think they are better than the average person. We are unable to remember feelings correctly, instead, we make something up which we think must have been close, but wasn’t. And when we imagine a future version of ourselves, our brains omit lots of very relevant details, for example, how we will have aged.

Gilbert is presenting study after study, all with disheartening results. He does so in a charming and funny way, though. The book is a joy to read despite its sobering content. Every now and then he presents you with a little game-like task to show how our brains work and drive a point home in that way. There are good jokes in the book, and they arrive unexpectedly, which makes them even better.

In my opinion, this is one of those books which should be read by everyone, preferably at a younger age, at the time of choosing career paths in your early twenties. The main points are very helpful in assessing decisions of importance to your own future. Combine the book with something more practical, though – possibly some ancient Stoic wisdom.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • I’m a person who makes a few decisions based on how happy I think I will be at the time of the result of the decision. And I have been disappointed often. Before reading this book, I was always sure that it was the outcome itself which was at fault here, not my own assessment. Now I know, likely I was wrong when judging what might make me happy. It’s just like a computational limit us humans face, but unfortunately this new realization doesn’t make it easier.
  • There’s one actionable bit of advice I took out of the book, and it’s that people regret not doing things more than they regret doing things. It’s easy to take from this that we should just show more courage and do more things. The #yolo generation might be scientifically right.

📔 Highlights


We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.

Part I – Prospection

The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future.

The key to happiness, fulfillment and enlightenment, the ex-professor argued, was to stop thinking so much about the future.

Forestalling pleasure is an inventive technique for getting double the juice from half the fruit. Indeed, some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience [..].

Being effective–changing things, influencing things, making things happen–is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control.

The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed.

Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.

So if the question is ‘Why should we want to control our futures?’ then the surprisingly right answer is that it feels good to do so–period. Impact is rewarding. Mattering makes us happy.

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain–not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

Part II – Subjectivity

For two thousand years philosophers have felt compelled to identify happiness with virtue because that is the sort of happiness they think we ought to want.

Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions, and those actions can cause those feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively.

We often say of others who claim to be happy despite circumstances that we believe should preclude it that ‘they only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they’re missing’. Okay, sure, but that’s the point. Not knowing what we’re missing can mean that we are truly happy under circumstances that would not allow us to be happy once we have experienced the missing thing.

What we can say is that all claims of happiness are claims from someone’s point of view–from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as a context, a lens, a background for her evaluation of her current experience.

In short, if we adhere to the standard of perfection in all our endeavors, we are left with nothing but mathematics and the White Album.

[..] imperfections in measurement are always a problem, but they are a devastating problem only when we don’t recognize them.

If we blithely go on to assume that ten billion of these simple devices [talking about nerve cells] can only do ten billion simple things, we would never guess that billions of them can exhibit a property that two, ten or ten thousand cannot [talking about consciousness].

Those subatomic particles that like to be everywhere at once seem to cancel out one another’s behavior so that the large conglomeration of particles that we call cows, cars and French Canadians stay exactly where we put them.

As Plato asked, ‘Are these things good for any other reason except that they end in pleasure, and get rid of and avert pain? Are you looking to any other standard but pleasure and pain when you call them good?’ Indeed, feelings don’t just matter–they are what mattering means.

Part III – Realism

Imagining ‘what it would feel like if’ sounds like a fluffy bit of daydreaming, but in fact, it is one of the most consequential mental acts we can perform, and we perform it every day.

First, the act of remembering involves ‘filling in’ details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.

Research suggests that when people make predictions about their reactions to future events, they tend to neglect the fact that their brains have performed the filling-in trick as an integral part of the act of imagination.

The point here is that when we imagine the future, we often do so in the blind spot of our mind’s eye, and this tendency can cause us to misimagine the future events whose emotional consequences we are attempting to weigh.

Indeed, when scientists want to establish the causal relationship between two things–cloud seeding and rain, heart attacks and cholesterol, you name it–they compute a mathematical index that takes into account co-occurrences (how many people who do have high cholesterol do have heart attacks?) and non-co-occurrences (how many people who do have high cholesterol do not have heart attacks, and how many people who do not have high cholesterol do have heart attacks?) and co-absences (how many people who don’t have high cholesterol don’t have heart attacks?). All of these quantities are necessary to assess accurately the likelihood that the two things have a real causal relationship.

Because when we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

Of course, the logical way to select a holiday is to consider both the presence and the absence of positive and negative attributes, but that’s not what most of us do.

But just as we tend to treat the details of future events that we do imagine as though they were actually going to happen, we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen. In other words, we fail to consider how much imagination fills in, but we also fail to consider how much it leaves out.

Indeed, studies show that the parts of the brain that are primarily responsible for generating feelings of pleasurable excitement become active when people imagine receiving a reward such as money in the near future but not when they imagine receiving the same reward in the far future.

The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t. No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening.

Part IV – Presentism

The writer Arthur C. Clarke formulated what has come to be known as Clarke’s first law: ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.’

This is a clever method for predicting future feelings, because how we feel when we imagine an event is usually a good indicator of how we will feel when the event itself transpires.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present.

We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.

Among life’s cruelest truths is this one: wonderful things are especially wonderful the first time they happen, but their wonderfulness wanes with repetition.

But human beings have discovered two devices that allow them to combat this tendency: variety and time. One way to beat habituation is to increase the variety of one’s experiences (‘Hey, honey, I have a kinky idea–let’s watch the sun set from the kitchen this time’).

The problem is that when we reason by metaphor and think of a dozen successive meals in a dozen successive months as though they were a dozen dishes arranged on a long table in front of us, we mistakenly treat sequential alternatives as though they were simultaneous alternatives. This is a mistake because sequential alternatives already have time on their side, hence variety makes them less pleasurable rather than more. Because time is so difficult to imagine, we sometimes imagine it as a spatial dimension.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible. And that is indeed what I ought to be doing because it really doesn’t matter what coffee cost the day before, the week before or at any time during the Hoover administration. Right now I have absolute dollars to spend and the only question I need to answer is how to spend them in order to maximize my satisfaction.

Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today.

Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.

Part V – Rationalization

‘Resilience is often the most commonly observed outcome trajectory following exposure to a potentially traumatic event.’ Indeed, studies of those who survive major traumas suggest that the vast majority do quite well, and that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience.

Able-bodied people are willing to pay far more to avoid becoming disabled than disabled people are willing to pay to become able-bodied again because able-bodied people underestimate how happy disabled people are.

Just as a Necker cube is both across from you and below you, ice cream is both fattening and tasty, and kale is both healthy and bitter. Your brain and my brain easily jump back and forth between these different ways of thinking about the foods because we are merely reading about them. But if we were preparing to eat one of them, our brains would automatically exploit the ambiguity of that food’s identity and allow us to think of it in a way that pleased us (delicious dessert or nutritious veggie) rather than a way that did not (fattening dessert or bitter veggie).

You’ve probably noticed that with the exception of almost no one, nobody picks friends and lovers by random sampling. On the contrary, we spend countless hours and countless dollars carefully arranging our lives to ensure that we are surrounded by people who like us, and people who are like us. It isn’t surprising, then, that when we turn to the people we know for advice and opinions, they tend to confirm our favored conclusions–either because they share them or because they don’t want to hurt our feelings by telling us otherwise.

The bottom line is this: the brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.

[..] research suggests that people are typically unaware of the reasons why they are doing what they are doing, but when asked for a reason, they readily supply one.

We accomplish this by unconsciously cooking the facts and then consciously consuming them. The dinner is in the dining room, but the chef is in the basement. The benefit of all this unconscious cookery is that it works; but the cost is that it makes us strangers to ourselves.

Studies show that about nine out of ten people expect to feel more regret when they foolishly switch stocks than when they foolishly fail to switch stocks, because most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities and not spending enough time with family and friends.

Indeed, research shows that when people are given electric shocks, they actually feel less pain when they believe they are suffering for something of great value.

Apparently, inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defences that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen.

The second reason why unexplained events have a disproportionate emotional impact is that we are especially likely to keep thinking about them. People spontaneously try to explain events, and studies show that when people do not complete the things they set out to do, they are especially likely to think about and remember their unfinished business. Once we explain an event, we can fold it up like freshly washed laundry, put it away in memory’s drawer, and move on to the next one; but if an event defies explanation, it becomes a mystery or a conundrum–and if there’s one thing we all know about mysterious conundrums, it is that they generally refuse to stay in the back of our minds.

Part VI – Corrigibility

We all have direct experience with things that do or don’t make us happy, we all have friends, therapists, cabdrivers and talk-show hosts who tell us about things that will or won’t make us happy, and yet, despite all this practice and all this coaching, our search for happiness often culminates in a stinky mess. We expect the next car, the next house or the next promotion to make us happy even though the last ones didn’t and even though others keep telling us that the next ones won’t.

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.

Because we tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times instead of the most likely of times, the wealth of experience that young people admire does not always pay clear dividends.

Memory’s fetish for endings explains why women often remember childbirth as less painful than it actually was, and why couples whose relationships have gone sour remember that they were never really happy in the first place.

We remember feeling as we believe we must have felt. The problem with this error of retrospection is that it can keep us from discovering our errors of prospection.

But third and most important, a few months after the election was decided, both groups of voters remembered feeling as they had expected to feel, and not as they had actually felt. Apparently, prospections and retrospections can be in perfect agreement despite the fact that neither accurately describes our actual experience.

Our memory for emotional episodes is overly influenced by unusual instances, closing moments and theories about how we must have felt way back then, all of which gravely compromise our ability to learn from our own experience.

The lesson to be learned from this game is that inaccurate beliefs can prevail in the belief-transmission game if they somehow facilitate their own ‘means of transmission’. In this case, the means of transmission is not sex but communication, and thus any belief–even a false belief–that increases communication has a good chance of being transmitted over and over again.

Americans who earn $50,000 per year are much happier than those who earn $10,000 per year, but Americans who earn $5 million per year are not much happier than those who earn $100,000 per year.

So once we’ve earned as much money as we can actually enjoy, we quit working and enjoy it, right? Wrong. People in wealthy countries generally work long and hard to earn more money than they can ever derive pleasure from. This fact puzzles us less than it should.

Like so many thinkers, [economist Adam] Smith believed that people want just one thing–happiness–hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy. If and only if people hold this false belief will they do enough producing, procuring and consuming to sustain their economies.

In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth.

My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it.

Because if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average. Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better ‘football sense’ than their teammates.

As one research team concluded, ‘Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy–not to mention more attractive–than the average person.’

What makes us think we’re so damned special? Three things, at least. First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside.

The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in well with our peers, but we don’t want to fit in too well.

The third reason why we tend to overestimate our uniqueness is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness–that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.

Because we can feel our own emotions but must infer the emotions of others by watching their faces and listening to their voices, we often have the impression that others don’t experience the same intensity of emotion that we do, which is why we expect others to recognize our feelings even when we can’t recognize theirs.

It doesn’t always make sense to heed what people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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