Stumbling on Happiness

Summary Written by Ingrid Urgolites
"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

The Big Idea

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

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.”

Join our newsletter

Sign up for the very best book summaries right to your inbox.
We care about your data in our privacy policy.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Insight #2

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.”

Read the book

Get Stumbling on Happiness on Amazon.

Daniel Gilbert

Daniel Gilbert is Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won numerous awards for his teaching and research, including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology. His research has been covered by The New York Times Magazine, Forbes, Money, CNN, U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Self, Men’s Health, Redbook, Glamour, Psychology Today, and many others. His short stories have appeared in Amazing Stories and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, as well as other magazines and anthologies. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Subscribe to digest
Read about our privacy policy.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.