Stumbling on Happiness

By Daniel Gilbert


As the author notes in the introduction, this is not a self-help book that teaches you how to be happy. Or a personal journey toward fulfillment. Daniel Gilbert is a psychologist; he attempts to deconstruct how two people can use the word “happiness” to mean completely different things. An example from the book is how conjoined twins can live richer and more fulfilling lives than the “singletons” who think the twins would be happier separated. I prefer Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, which covers a lot of the same ground in more detail. But I found Stumbling on Happiness an easier read.

We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity.

Surprise tells us that we were expecting something other than what we got, even when we didn’t know we were expecting anything at all.

This frontal lobe—the last part of the human brain to evolve, the slowest to mature, and the first to deteriorate in old age—is a time machine that allows each of us to vacate the present and experience the future before it happens.

Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

Other animals must experience an event in order to learn about its pleasures and pains, but our powers of foresight allow us to imagine that which has not yet happened and hence spare ourselves the hard lessons of experience.

Just as we experience illusions of eyesight (“Isn’t it strange how one line looks longer than the other even though it isn’t?”) and illusions of hindsight (“Isn’t it strange how I can’t remember taking out the garbage even though I did?”), so too do we experience illusions of foresight.

People want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically meant to be means to that end.

The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views.

When the word happy is followed by the words that or about, speakers are usually trying to tell us that we ought to take the word happy as an indication not of their feelings but rather of their stances.

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. It does not mean that those who don’t know what they’re missing are less happy than those who have it.

Before our brains have finished the full-scale analysis that will allow us to know that the object is a wolverine, they have already put our bodies into their ready-to-run-away modes—all pumped up and raring to go.

Awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience.

If the goal of science is to make us feel awkward and ignorant in the presence of things we once understood perfectly well, then psychology has succeeded above all others.

If we want to know how a person feels, we must begin by acknowledging the fact that there is one and only one observer stationed at the critical point of view.

The three-and-a-half-pound meat loaf between our ears is not a simple recording device but a remarkably smart computer that gathers information, makes shrewd judgments and even shrewder guesses, and offers us its best interpretation of the way things are.

The general inability to think about absences is a potent source of error in everyday life.

It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention—difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering.

The vivid detail of the near future makes it much more palpable than the far future, thus we feel more anxious and excited when we imagine events that will take place soon than when we imagine events that will take place later.

The number of respected scientists and accomplished inventors who declared the airplane an impossibility is exceeded only by the number who said the same thing about space travel, television sets, microwave ovens, nuclear power, heart transplants, and female senators.

People misremember their own pasts by recalling that they once thought, did, and said what they now think, do, and say.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness we feel when we think about it.

Reasoning by metaphor is an ingenious technique that allows us to remedy our weaknesses by capitalizing on our strengths—using things we can visualize to think, talk, and reason about things we can’t.

Starting points matter because we often end up close to where we started.

Our sensitivity to relative rather than absolute magnitudes is not limited to physical properties such as weight, brightness, or volume. It extends to subjective properties, such as value, goodness, and worth as well.

The facts are these: (a) value is determined by the comparison of one thing with another; (b) there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instance; and (c) we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison.

The person you might have been making love with is largely irrelevant when you are in the middle of making love with someone else.

Are we really supposed to believe that people who lose their jobs, their freedom, and their mobility are somehow improved by the tragedies that befall them?

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.

As soon as our potential experience becomes our actual experience—as soon as we have a stake in its goodness—our brains get busy looking for ways to think about the experience that will allow us to appreciate it.

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion.

How do we manage to think of ourselves as great drivers, talented lovers, and brilliant chefs when the facts of our lives include a pathetic parade of dented cars, disappointed partners, and deflated soufflés?

Studies show that people intuitively lean toward asking the questions that are most likely to elicit the answers they want to hear. And when they hear those answers, they tend to believe what they’ve nudged others to say, which is why “Tell me you love me” remains such a popular request.

Whether by choosing information or informants, our ability to cook the facts that we encounter helps us establish views that are both positive and credible.

Although the word fact seems to suggest a sort of unquestionable irrefutability, facts are actually nothing more than conjectures that have met a certain standard of proof.

To ensure that our views are credible, our brain accepts what our eye sees. To ensure that our views are positive, our eye looks for what our brain wants. The conspiracy between these two servants allows us to live at the fulcrum of stark reality and comforting illusion.

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.

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.

To be effective, a defensive system must respond to threats; but to be practical, it must respond only to threats that exceed some critical threshold—which means that threats that fall short of the critical threshold may have a destructive potential that belies their diminutive size.

It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience, which is why we love the clunker in the driveway, the shabby cabin that’s been in the family for years, and Uncle Sheldon despite his predilection for nasal spelunking.

Most of us will pay a premium today for the opportunity to change our minds tomorrow, and sometimes it makes sense to do so.

We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.

Simply writing about a trauma—such as the death of a loved one or a physical assault—can lead to surprising improvements in both subjective well-being and physical health (e.g., fewer visits to the physician and improved production of viral antibodies).

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.

Explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows us to stop thinking about them.

Memory is not a dutiful scribe that keeps a complete transcript of our experiences, but a sophisticated editor that clips and saves key elements of an experience and then uses these elements to rewrite the story each time we ask to reread it.

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.

Apparently, the way an experience ends is more important to us than the total amount of pleasure we receive—until we think about it.

Almost any time we tell anyone anything, we are attempting to change the way their brains operate—attempting to change the way they see the world so that their view of it more closely resembles our own.

False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.

Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter.

The pleasures of wealth and greatness . . . strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it. . . . It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.

If you believe (as I do) that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel.

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.

Ironically, the bias toward seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average too.

We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.


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