Stumbling on Happiness

"To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine – ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be. 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."

- Stumbling on Happiness, page 5

In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert uses engaging analogies and insightful research in explaining what makes us stumble when we predict how we will feel in the future. He supports his bold statement, “The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.” It took over two million years for the one and a quarter pound brain of Homo habilis to evolve to the nearly three-pound brain of Homo sapiens. The growth spurt that super-sized our frontal lobe is responsible for anxiety and planning, both of which involve predicting the future. Because of this remarkable adaptation he says, “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.”

The pursuit of happiness – something which we all feel entitled to as human beings – anchors on planning a satisfying future. We make decisions to maximize satisfaction in life. Gilbert says, “Indeed, feelings don’t just matter – they are what mattering means.” The stumbling block is thinking we can guide our lives to a future that will make us happier than other futures. We may not be able to plan our way to a happy future and worry away the pitfalls, but there are ways we can avoid stumbling on happiness.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Use Surrogates to Increase Satisfaction with Choices

"This trio of studies suggests that when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today."
- Stumbling on Happiness, page 251

We spend most of our time thinking about ourselves. We think of ourselves as special because we can only experience our feelings. We have to infer what other people feel. Gilbert notes, “This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others – often for better but sometimes for worse.” Thinking of ourselves and others regarding differences helps us distinguish ourselves and others, but we tend to overestimate our unique qualities. Believing we are different is the main reason we reject using others’ experiences to predict our happiness.

Imagining the future involves combining our perception of our present and memory of the past and making a prediction. Unfortunately, our perception and memory are biased and inaccurate models of reality. Measuring other people’s experience produces a better understanding of reality. Gilbert observes, “The irony, of course, is that surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions, but because we don’t realize just how similar we are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.”

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Our Imagination has a Blind Spot

"The point here is 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."
- Stumbling on Happiness, page 102

We have a tendency to misrepresent reality in our minds eye and create a blind spot where the future is. Because we misremember the past and misperceive the present, we also misimagine the future. Gilbert writes, “Because we naturally use our present feelings as a starting point when we attempt to predict our future feelings, we expect our future to be a bit more like our present than it actually will.” Our memories are an inaccurate representation of an event; they showcase rare occurrences. We also tend to compare our present to our imagined future and predict bad things will be worse than they are once they happen. Referencing a surrogate’s experience can illuminate the blind spot.

Another type of blind spot is comparing the wrong things. We may see the value of savings relative to the total purchase price and not the full amount of money we have. We may drive across town to save five cents a gallon on gasoline but not to save five hundred dollars on an automobile. As Gilbert writes, “your bank account contains absolute dollars and not ‘percentages off.’” Our bank account will still have fifty cents more money when we save on gas and five hundred dollars more when we save on the automobile. We also may assess the value of purchase based on what we spent before. As in Gilbert’s example, “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.”

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

We Rationalize Courage More Than Cowardice

"Our most consequential choices – whether to marry, have children, buy a house, enter a profession, move abroad – are often shaped by how we imagine our future regrets (‘Oh no, I forgot to have a baby!’). Regret is an emotion we feel when we blame ourselves for unfortunate outcomes that might have been prevented had we only behaved differently in the past, and because that emotion is decidedly unpleasant, our behavior in the present is often designed to preclude it."
- Stumbling on Happiness, page 196

People regret not having done things much more than things they did. If we have a bad experience that we cannot change, we look for ways to change our viewpoint. We can think of the things we learned from a mistake, but if there was no experience we default to regret. Although eventually we rationalize courage more than cowardice in the present, the risk may seem exaggerated. We usually do not feel as bad about adverse events as we think we will.

Using a surrogate’s experience can help evaluate options. It is very hard to make a balanced comparison because we tend to focus on any attribute that distinguishes one option from another and not on the attributes most important to us. We also tend to make a biased evaluation, as Gilbert writes, “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 … is to consider both the presence and the absence of positive and negative attributes, but that’s not what most of us do.”

Happiness is about feeling satisfied with our lives. Gilbert writes, “In short, the comparisons we make have a profound impact on our feelings, and when we fail to recognize that the comparisons we are making today are not the comparisons we will make tomorrow, we predictably underestimate how differently we will feel in the future.”

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Ingrid Urgolites

ABOUT Ingrid Urgolites

I work for Citigroup in operations. I have a varied background, and I enjoy service-oriented work. In addition to business, I have a keen interest in food and nutrition, and I have been vegetarian or vegan my whole life...
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