Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert: Summary and Notes

Stumbling on Happiness “Our brain accepts what the eyes see and our eye looks for whatever our brain wants.”

Rating: 8/10

Related Books: The How of HappinessAuthentic HappinessThanks! , The Upside of Irrationality, Predictably Irrational

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Stumbling on Happiness Short Summary 

A book on how to find happiness. Daniel Gilbert argues that rather than helping us, our imagination and experiences stand in the way of our attempts at a happy life. The suggestion? We should be more willing to believe in the experiences of others because they are mirrors of our own. A great book on the secret to happiness. I found the message to be simple and wise, but the journey to be unnecessarily long.

Part I: Prospection

The Journey to Elsewhen

We are often unable to predict our future actions, tastes, and preferences.

For example:

People get tattoos only to remove them and then curse at having got them in the first place. The mistakes that we make when trying to predict our future selves are lawful, regular, and systematic. Humans beings are the only animals capable of thinking about the future.

The brain’s greatest achievement is conscious experience. Seeing the great pyramid of Giza for what it is, is a far greater achievement than actually creating it.

“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.”

Thinking about the future is pleasurable and sometimes we’d rather just think about it than get there. Some events are more pleasurable to imagine than to experience.

The main reason why our brains simulate the future is so that we can control the experiences that we have. 

“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.”

Part II: Subjectivity

The word happiness is used to refer to three related things:

  • Emotional happiness
  • Moral happiness
  • Judgemental happiness

It’s hard to define emotional happiness, but when we feel it, we have no doubt about its reality and importance. Because we have a poor recollection of our experiences, we cannot objectively compare a previous state of happiness to a present state.

“…the experiences of our former selves are sometimes as opaque to us as the experiences of other people, but more important, they tell us when this is most and least likely to be the case.” “Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see”

All claims of happiness are subjective. And are formed from the perspective of a single human being whose unique collection of past experiences serves as context.

We will never be able to measure with complete accuracy the subjective experience of someone else in a way that allows us to record the experience, and compare it with that of another.

While all measures of subjective experiences are flawed, the least flawed is the real-time report of the attentive individual. Imperfections in measurements are only going to be a devastating problem if you don’t recognize them.

“The bottom line is this: The attentive person’s honest, real-time report is an imperfect approximation of her subjective experience, but it is the only game in town.”

Part III: Realism

Imagining how things feel like is one of the most consequential acts that we perform.

We make decisions about who to marry, where to work, where to retire, and so on based on our beliefs about how we would feel if this event happened.

While our lives may not turn out the way that we want, we are confident that if events had gone our way, our happiness would have been great and our troubles few.

But there is a problem with this observation. People who have experienced the things we wish for don’t express the level of happiness that we hope exists.

“...the shortcoming that causes us to misremember the past and misperceive the present is the very same shortcoming that causes us to misimagine the future.”

What you experience of the world is not reality but your interpretation of it. The brain is so good at filling in the details of what you see, hear, and feel that you automatically assume that your brains are right.

“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”

People pay more attention to things that are present and fail to see things that are not present.

“Our inattention to absences influences the way that we think about the future. Just as we do not remember every detail of a past event.”

Escaping the focus of our own attention is difficult. This is one of the reasons we mispredict our emotional responses to future events.

Part IV: Presentism

Most people have a hard time imagining what they will feel, and want tomorrow because of the influence of the present emotional states.

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

Instead of recognizing that our pessimism of the future lies in our present feelings, we assume that the future event is awful.

“If we want to predict how something will make us feel in the future, we must consider the kind of comparison we will be making in the future and not the kind of comparison we happen to be making in the present”

Part V: Rationalization

Negative events affect us but not as long as we expect them. When our psychological immune system is working, we are able to cope with any negative situation that comes our way. We cook facts about ourselves to think that we are better than other people.

When our experiences make us unhappy, our psychological immune system cooks facts and shifts blame to offer us a more positive view.

“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 folks 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.”

When facts challenge our point of view, we scrutinize them more keenly than those that support our opinions. When we cannot change the experience, we look for ways to change our view of the experience.

Explaining events robs them of their emotional impact because it makes the event seem more likely. This allows us to stop thinking about it.

“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.”

Wealth increases people’s happiness after it removes them from poverty and places them in the middle class. After that, there is little relation between wealth and happiness.

To know whether we will be happy in a specific place, space and time, we should look at someone else’s subjective experience of the future that we desire. People are more similar than they are different.

We cannot objectively rely on our imagination to tell us what we will feel like in the future.