Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert


I stumbled across this book on a warehouse sale many moons ago. As part of my current knowledge pursuit on the subject, ‘Happiness’, I pulled it out of my shelf and was prepared for a boring read. I am never a fan of non-fiction, much less anything on psychology, but this book was rather easy to read, although I needed to read some of the experiments a few times to realise the intention.

Yes, this book is flooded by tests, researches and experiments done by psychologists to study human behaviours. In fact, 34 pages at the end of the book is dedicated to the indicies of all the experiments listed. Every fact, statement and hypothsis is accompanied by a little supercript number which one can find out more in these pages of appendix.

Gilbert gives you some facts about happiness. What we think about happiness is actually not what its seems to be. Happiness is subjective, it’s temporary, and is often confused by the desire for other wants, and its affected by a whole array of variables.

The pursuit of happiness often lies in an imagined future. The mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are lawful, regular and systematic, much like an optical illusion (which the author listed a few for illustrations.) but nevertheless still mistakes.

This projection into the future, known as prospection, is often the cause of unhappiness. Our brains are constantly planning. Not thinking about the next instant is a struggle. Researchers find that 12% of our daily thoughts are about the future. In fact, they found thinking about the future to be more pleasurable, we prefer to think about it than to get there. The key to happiness, fulfillment and enlightenment,  is to stop thinking so much about the future, says the book Be Here Now, the author quotes.

From prospection, the author delves into the science of happiness and shows how the feeling of happiness is subjective. Since happiness is an experience, there is no way of measuring it. Two persons’ experience of happiness are different. Even the feeling of happiness one experienced now and then recalled through memory later is different.

Next, he shows us how sketchy our memory and imagination actually are, often leaving out certain details that the brain fills in. Our prediction of future events are based on detailed image that reflected our brain’s best guess.The can cause us to misimagine the future events whose emotional consequences we are attempting to weigh. Here, he gives a brilliant example of Adolph Fischer verses George Eastman. Who do you think is happier – the CEO of a fortune 500 company (Eastman) or the deadweight on a hangman’s rope (Fischer)?

Our brains also have trouble imagining near and distant future. When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.  (Try to imagine a good day tomorrow and a good day a year later and you know what the author means.) The distant events are viewed as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them. This cause us to value them differently as well. People imagine a near future pain to be  more severe they will gladly pay a dollar to avoid it, but a far-future pain as mild that they will gladly accept a dollar to endure it, even though it’s the same pain of waiting.

How we imagine our future or past is often affected by current event or from memory stored (hence conditional behaviour), whether it’s a visual experience or an emotional experience. (Lots of interesting studies to prove this.) One of the hallmarks of visual experience is that we can almost always tell whether it is the product of a real or an imagines object, but not so with emotional experience. The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is call prefeeling, the two which are often commonly mixed up. Thus, we cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. We mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of unhappiness we feel when we think about it. Our brains are responding to current events which we mistakenly conclude that we will feel tomorrow as we feel today.

Then, the author goes on to explain why a person could feel happy after undergoing a tragedy or trauma.The fact is that negative events do affect us, but not as much or for as long as we expect them to.

To quote the summary at the end:

‘People often value things more when they are imminent than distant, they are often hurt more by small losses than by large ones, they often imagine that the pain of losing something is greater than the pleasure of getting it, and so on.

Our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there. When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. We also imagine future feelings based on present emotion.

So the conclusion is, there is no simple formula for finding happiness, reading this book at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble in our pursuit of it.

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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