Stumbling on Happiness

“infobox Book “
name Stumbling on Happiness
image caption Vintage Edition cover
author Daniel Gilbert
country United States
language English
genre Non-fiction
publisher Vintage
release date 2006
media type Hardback & Paperback
pages 263
isbn 1400042666

In simple and plain terms, Dr. Gilbert explores the nature of happiness and explains the numerous psychological illusions that tend to distort our perception of joy.

The book begins by raising some questions and dilemmas that plague almost everyone: Why am I not happier? Does money make me happy? How much money will make me happy? How can I be happier? After establishing the subjectivity and difficulty in measuring happiness, Dr. Gilbert points us to various studies and experiments which leads to three main conclusions:

1. When we imagine our state of mind (happiness, sadness, feeling due to hypothetical events), key details may be added or missing without us realizing it. (Not unlike the blind spot.) Very often, it’s those details that ultimately make us happy.
2. When we imagine the future (or recall the past), it is far less imaginative than we think. Our mental picture will be very much like the present and our “imagined” feelings will be strongly influenced by the current state of mind.
3. When events actually happen, we view it far differently than before it had happened. Our psychological “immune system” will distort our perception of major psychological events to help shield us from undesirable effects (pain, depression).

The solution presented by Dr. Gilbert to accurately estimate our happiness is to draw our conclusion from people with similar backgrounds and experiences. The variance in subjectivity of happiness is a lot lower than the distortion in your own imagination.

Chapter Summaries

Part One – Prospection

Chapter One: Journey to Elsewhen

“The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future.” There are two kinds of “making future”:

  1. Making predictions about the immediate, local, personal, future. (as many animals do). Can be as simple as behavioral reflex. These prediction, or rather, expectations can might as well be called “nexting”. Surprise results when things don’t happen the way we predicated.
  2. Imagining the future, planning for later. People who had frontal lobotomy seem more calm, content and otherwise normal. But they lack the ability to plan and live in “perpetual present”.

Be Here Now, is a book where the author argues that the key to happiness is to stop thinking so much about the future.

So why do we think forward all the time? Two reaons:

  1. It’s emotionally gratifying and pleasant to imagine the future. We even imaging the unpleasant situations because it can minimize their negative impact, and that fear can be an effective motivation.
  2. We see into the future in order to control and change it. We want control because that humans tend to have a need to control things.

Then what’s wrong with shaping our future and steering our lives toward the desirable destination? “The future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.” We suffer from illusions of foresight just as we suffer from illusions of hindsight.

Part Two – Subjectivity

What is “happiness”?

Chapter Two: The View from in Here

Happiness is a subjective feeling. It is but impossible to compare two different persons’ level of happiness.
What about comparing two kinds of happiness by the same person? That is very inaccurate as well because we tend to compare the present happiness with something in the past, or two past experiences of happiness. It can be demonstrated that human memory is extremely faulty and imprecise when it comes to things that are subjective and less quantifiable. Even when comparing things at the present, our brains often fail to perceive differences.

Chapter Three: Outside Looking In

Studies have shown that people may misinterpret their feelings based on context (physiological arousal vs. sexual arousal), and be completely unaware of certain experiences even though their brain did process them.
We can try to measure happiness if we accept three premises:

  1. Measurement will not be perfect, but it’s better than nothing.
  2. The honest, real-time report of the individual is the least flawed.
  3. Imperfections can be detected and their effect reduced through the //law of large numbers//.

Due to subjectivity, it may be impossible to measure or compare two people’s happiness, but //comparing// is not the problem, the issue is //two//. If there are a million data points, we can do a reasonably good job of analyzing the data.

Part Three – Realism

“First shortcoming: Imagination works so quickly , quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.”

Chapter Four: In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye

We fill in what we cannot see in our blind spot of visual perception with what we think should be there. Similarly, we only store important pieces of data (actual feelings can be one such piece) as part of our memory and fill in the details when we retrieve that memory. This turns out to be true when we imagine the future as well. The brain quickly and quietly fills in the details and we are rarely aware of this process.

Chapter Five: The Hound of Silence

Studies have shown that we tend to emphasize the presence of certain attributes, but ignore the absence of various elements. E.g. figuring out “special” words that share the common element of missing a certain letter; picking West Germany and East Germany as both the most “similar” and most “dissimilar” countries. We notice the presence of similarity AND the presence of dissimilarity, but not the absence of either. Extending this to imagination, we tend to be unaware of the absence of many important details when we imagine the future.

Just as we can see more detail of things closer by than those farther away, we imagine events that are closer to the present with greater detail than those far ahead into the future. However, our brain knows how to adjust for the view in space, but rarely does it do so for the view in time. Precisely because we imagine the near future with greater detail than the far future, we value the near term more so.

Part Four – Presentism

“Second shortcoming: Imagination’s procuts are… well, not particularly imaginative, which is why the imagined future often looks so much like the actual present.”

Chapter Six: The Future Is Now

How we are feeling in the present affects how we remember the past and how we imagine the future. E.g. a widow’s grief of a lost husband five years ago is largely dependent on how she feels now.

Why is that one can’t imagine being hungry when one is full? Because just as imagination preview objects, so does it prefeel events. When we try to imagine something, we try visualizing it and painting a mental picture. The visual area of our brain gets exercised in the process. That is why you block your ears when you try to remember a melody. You need that part of the brain for processing sound.

Similarly with sensory imagination, emotional imagination requires the brain to actually feel. The brain cannot feel two things at once just as it can’t sense two different things at once. This is why it is difficult to imagine hunger when you are full, imaging happiness when you are depressed, etc.

Chapter Seven: Time Bombs

We tend to reason about time by transforming it into spatial terms (e.g. timeline), just as we transform abstract ideas into concrete things that are like it. The variety vs. no-variety study showed that people often mistakenly imagine sequential events (same favorite snack once every week) as simultaneous events (all at once), and therefore falsely predict that having variety over extended periods of time will product more happiness.

We tend to imagine how we would feel about things that are going to happen in the future by imaging how we would feel if they happened now. Only then do we try to correct for the event’s actual location in time. The problem with this is analysis is that the starting point has a profound effect on the ending point. Therefore, we expect our future to feel a bit more like our present than it actually will.

The human brain is adapt at comparing things. We often compare with the past when we ought to compare with the possible. But when we compare the possible, we may end up comparing too many attributes. Value is determined by comparison, but if we try to predict how something will make us feel in the future, we shouldn’t focus on the kind of comparison we happen to be making in the present.

Part Five – Rationalization

“Third shortcoming: Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we get there.”

Chapter Eight: Paradise Glossed

Just as sensory stimuli can be subjectively ambiguous (disambiguated by context, frequency, recency), experience can be ambiguous as well. To disambiguate experiences, we often rationalize toward positive feelings. This can be considered psychological immune system. We try to support rationalization with facts, but the sampling will be biased and facts that contradict our ideal will more likely be challenged.

Chapter Nine: Immune to Reality

When we predict about the future, we rarely take into account future rationalization. So looking forward often produces a different result than looking back on the same experience.People also regret inactions more than actions. One reason is that it’s more difficult to manufacture positive and credible views of inactions than of actions.

Not all negative experiences trigger our psychological defense system. They must exceed a certain threshold to invoke the intensity trigger. Inescapable, inevitable and irrevocable circumstances also trigger the psychological immune system. Our failure to anticipate that inescapability will trigger our immune system leads us to prefer more freedom vs. limited options. This actually produces less satisfaction in the future.

Explanations ameliorates the impact of unpleasant events, so too do they ameliorate the impact of pleasant events. That is why unexplained events have a disproportionate emotional impact, partly because we tend to keep thinking about them.

Part Six – Corrigibility

“Why illusions of foresight are not easily remedied by personal experience or by the wisdom we inherit from our grandmothers.”

Chapter Ten: Once Bitten

Why can’t we learn from experience to better predict and change the future? Because our interpretation of memory can be flawed.

  1. We expect to recall frequent experiences easily and view those as an indication of truth. However, the least likely experience is often the most likely memory.
  2. We tend to judge the pleasure of an experience by its ending, possibly ignoring the majority of the positive feelings prior to the ending.
  3. Beliefs, stereotypes often influence how we remember our emotions, even though they had less of an impact at the time being.

Chapter Eleven: Reporting Live from Tomorrow

Our false view of happiness, and what gives us happiness, is a product of cultural values that replicates itself to ensure the prorogation of successful generations. This is not unlike how genes get promoted and passed on through generations.

Imagination’s three shortcomings:

  1. its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us.
  2. its tendency to project the present onto the future.
  3. its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen.

The solution is to not attempt to guess/imagine the future, but instead, base your prediction on other people’s actual experience. See and ask how others who have gone through the same experience feels. Try your best to not assume that you will feel much differently because you are special or unique.

The author has the foresight that this “simple” solution is likely to be rejected at once by most readers.

External Links

:Published in 2006
Stumbling on Happiness