Daniel Gilbert, STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS (2006)

The author is a Harvard psychologist, recently familiar for several TV commercials he’s done for Prudential, which typically depict him in a public park doing surveys of groups of people. (https://www.ispot.tv/topic/expert/k7f/daniel-gilbert). This seems to be the only book the author has done; it was published in 2006. I have the 2007 trade paperback edition.

The idea of this book is that people aren’t very good about identifying what makes them happy, or what happiness even is. The cover blurb offers several paradoxes of modern life:

  • Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?
  • Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight?
  • Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want?
  • Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim; why can’t we remember one song while listening to another; and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?

The book is about applying recent insights from psychological studies—familiar from many other books I’m summarizing here—to answer these issues about happiness. Short answers: people aren’t good at anticipating the future; and since most people think they are special, they don’t rely on other people to testify about what makes them happy. The answer to the problem is, people *should* rely on the testimony of others.

This a nice big-picture summary of human history at the end of the book to provide perspective on how this is a modern problem–it’s quoted at the end of this post.

Key points:

These are summarized at the end of Part I: Journey to Elsewhen.

  • The idea of happiness is subjective.
  • Our imagination about future happiness works so quickly we are insufficiently skeptical of its product.
  • Our imagination’s products are not particularly imaginative.
  • Imagination has trouble anticipating how we will think about future events once we get there.
  • And why illusions of foresight are not easily remedied. The simple recipe is one you will almost certainly not accept.

The simple recipe is, as mentioned: rely on the testimony of others. Trust them.

Detailed Summary:


Author wonders what you’d do if you learned you had only 10 minutes to live, and then reflects on how bad we are at anticipating our own future needs and desires. Then recalls the Muller-Lyer lines, and the Necker cube, and how he was fascinated by optical illusions. It turns out the mistakes we make anticipating our future are also systematic, how they play in other kinds of illusions. “This is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well and human brain can imagine its own future…”

Part I: Prospection

Ch1, Journey to Elsewhen

Psychologists dread ever writing a sentence that begins “The human being is the only animal that…” because they are apt to be disproven by later discoveries. Use tools; use language. Author suggests: “that thinks about the future.” Many animals anticipate the future, but only about what happens next: nexting. Only humans develop the concept of ‘later’, at some point millions of years ago. [[ science fiction might be thought of as literature that acknowledges ‘later’ and not just the present moment; unlike traditional literature ]]

It seems the frontal lobes are involved with this feature. Recall Phineas Gage (who survived a spike rammed into his skull that destroyed some of his brain); some people do better *without* their frontal lobes—except when it comes to planning, or feeling anxiety.

So *why* do people have this ability? Ironically, it was popular in the ‘60s to take LSD and “be here now” – to live in the moment. Still, most people find imagining the future pleasurable. Americans in particular are optimistic about the future. People are xxxxxx ‘fearcast’ as means of avoiding bad events.

And we think we want to do something about the future. Why? To exercise control; having control is good for us. (Example of nursing home patients taking care of plants.) Even the illusion of control makes us happy. And: we think we know where we want to go, and want to control getting there. The problem is, this is a wrong answer, because we usually can’t perceive the future accurately – the subject of the rest of the book.

P26, summary and look forward. [[ xxxxxxxx and yes, this applies to SF, in how many visions of the future are so conservative; covered later. ]]

Part II: Subjectivity

Ch2, The View from In Here

We think conjoined twins must be unhappy—but they aren’t. Happiness has three components: emotional; moral; judgmental, 33.8.

Emotional is the most basic, and it’s entirely subjective. People want to be happy. Pope, Freud, others: 37m

Moral: some think merely being happy is unworthy of us; that we should attain a worthy happiness, Nozick, p38; simple happiness is fine for pigs. Christians turned happiness into a reward for living a moral life. But are virtue and happiness the same? 40m. Not necessarily.

Happiness as judgment is the abstract idea of being happy about something, as in being happy for someone despite personal unhappiness. But it’s difficult to compare instances of happiness; memory is fallible; later descriptions tend to override our actual memories. And we’re sometimes blind to change – e.g. the card trick, p49.

We suspect that other people have different scales of happiness; a birthday cake to conjoined twins is more important to them that to us; p51. We’re apt to think, they only think they’re happy; they don’t know better. Xxxxx Experience stretching; the difficulty in evaluating other people’s claims of happiness.

Ch3, Outside Looking In

Can people be mistaken about how they feel? Yes. We can be wrong about our emotions. Examples of people crossing the Capilano River bridge, 63.7.

There’s an issue with being *aware* of experiencing – “In fact, awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience.” 66.4 [[ yes, this is exactly the kind of awareness that my project tries to describe, in contrast to the day to day existence of most people. ]]

Sometimes we realize we’re completely unaware of something we’ve obviously done, as while being distracted. Blindsight.

Nice para summarizing the history of what we’ve thought about the world, from bearded God to Descartes: 69b, worth quoting. QQQQQxxxxx

Can we measure happiness? If not is it science? We must accept imperfection in such measurements, but realize that real-time reports are the least flawed of all possible measures.

Also count for the law of large numbers – the more measurements, the more errors will balance out. And large numbers lead to emergent properties.

Feelings are what means, 78m

Part III, Realism

Ch4, In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye

Author compares Adolph Fischer, who upon his execution said it was the happiest moment in his life, and George Eastman, founder of Kodak, who became wealthy and then committed suicide.

We usually make errors when we imagine “what it would feel like if.” Our imaginations have shortcomings. It’s analogous to Harpo, pulling large objects from beneath his cloak; we fabricate memories from summaries, rather than retaining detailed records. You can trick people into ‘remembering’ things by suggesting details that didn’t happen. So, we know that memory fills in details—and we know that this happens quickly and unconsciously. It’s like the eye’s blind spot. We fill in words in a list based on their theme, p88. And these tricks work even when we know about them.

Recall how the wizard in Oz said he was a very good man, but a bad wizard. In the 18th century philosophers realized this about the brain. Locke maintained the idea of realism, that what is perceived actually exists. Then Kant put forth idealism, 94.4, in which our perceptions blend with what we think, feel, know, want, and believe. Piaget noticed this about children—who learn that how things are and how they appear are different. [[ cf Bering ]]

And yet we don’t get over realism entirely; we outfox it 95b. We sometimes quickly correct ourselves from observation to what we ‘know’ must be so. Thus the “crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world.” 97-98. [[ but this is half of it; there is more real world we can barely intellectualize ]]

Mental images are interpretations, and we often forget this—imagining something more elaborate than is likely to happen. Example of ‘spaghetti for dinner’. (see examples p99). This is one reason reality disappoints us, and we are bad at anticipating the future.

Author goes back to recount the true stories of Fischer and Eastman—and how you can sympathize with their fates. But the point is there are ways of being things that the brain doesn’t imagine; we unthinkingly treat what we imagine as accurate representation of the facts. We’re bad wizards.

Ch5, The Hound of Silence

Now the issue of what imagination leaves out. It’s like the dog that didn’t bark, in Sherlock Holmes. We notice the hits, and not the misses, e.g. about pigeon poop. [[ this is a very familiar point. ]] Sir Francis Bacon noticed this, p109, recalling claims of miracles and wondering about the sailors who *weren’t* saved.

We have a hard time imagining many things—e.g. what life is like after death of a child. That people go on with their lives and aren’t as devastated as people imagine. How happy people are in different cities, or in California. (Kahneman uses this example too.)

A Pygmy once saw buffalo in the distance and assumed they were insects, because they looked tiny and he had no experience seeing things on a distant horizon. [[ nice analogy to some SF perceptions ]]

We imagine events differently whether close or far in time, p116. And the problem is that we’re not aware of all this.

Part IV, Presentism

Ch6, The Future Is Now

How imagination can be too conservative. Examples of visions of tomorrow, from the 1950s—all the things that are missing., p123. And examples of predictions of impossible things, e.g. flight. Mention of Clarke’s law.

We tend to backfill current attitudes onto the past, e.g. how we felt about a candidate before he actually won or lost. And we use today’s attitudes, e.g. why our appetite vanishes after a big meal – we can’t imagine being hungry again. Other hungers are also hard to forecast.

We have mental images for things in the world; our imagination previews objects and ‘prefeels’ events. Ironically this allows nonthinkers to better predict future satisfaction. And yet the brain does prioritize reality—otherwise we’d ignore a red light if we happened to be thinking about a green one. The same happens with emotion – we extrapolate from the moment. Depression is when people think about future events and can’t imagine liking them much.

Ch7, Time Bombs

It’s easy to imagine physical objects, but not abstract ideas. So how do we think about time? Like space; moving forward or looking back, etc.

This helps explain the restaurant conundrum where we anticipate trying different dishes each time we visit – or choosing something different than the other diners – even though you prefer a single dish. We think variety is the spice of life—but it is only in the short term, e.g. exchanging plates part way through. Repetition wanes pleasure; we compensate with variety and time; but with time, we don’t need variety.

Mental images are atemporal, and this leads to errors when we make judgments based on different starting points. [[ priming, another familiar idea ]]

People dislike salary cuts; they are sensitive to relative change. Thus shopping mistakes in comparing earlier prices rather than overall finances.

And shopping errors as in making comparisons at the store that we’ll never make again once we get our selection home, p159.

This is like ‘presentism,’ the tendency to judge historical figures by contemporary standards, 161-2.

[[ this is why I’ve always hate shopping, especially the obsessive shopping that compares every possible option, despite knowing that once you get the thing home you’ll never think about those options ever again. ]]

Part V, Rationalization

Ch8, Paradise Glossed

Note quote from Hamlet – thinking makes it so.

Quotes from xxxxxx JW and others suggest a method to become fulfilled and enlightened—and the method is that something terrible happens to you and you recover. People are resilient; they often say that tragedy made them a better person. Negative events do affect people, but not as much as we think.

The mind exploits ambiguity, as in figure 16 and 17 whether looking for zero or the letter O.

We disambiguate objects based on context, frequency, and recency, p171. And we often prefer one option over another. E.g. the way we define ‘talent’ depends on what we ourselves think we are good at. We tend to exploit ambiguity in the way that is positive for ourselves, 175b.

Recall Voltaire’s Pangloss – humans are not hopelessly Panglossian. We’re a mix, of reality and illusion – 1774.:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

[[ an interesting take perhaps on reality v fantasy, SF v fantasy, story v fact, etc ]]

This is a psychological immune system that’s analogous to the physical immune system. Thus when faced with adversity, it must not defend us too well (i.e. avoid “I’m perfect and everyone is against me”) but must defend us well enough (avoid “I’m a loser and I ought to be dead”). We do seek positive views of our experience, but only when they are credible.

So what’s credible? For one, we place a lot of stock in what scientists tell us. But we cook the facts. We select various techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, to reach different conclusions. Bad scientists choose techniques that lead to the conclusions they favor. An easy technique is sampling bias—we only look at evidence that supports our views. Most people are bad scientists. We ask leading questions that favor a particular response. We make selective comparisons. And we see what we want to see, as when rival fans watch the same sports game. We ask whether facts allow us to believe what we favor, vs whether they compel us to believe what we disfavor. [[ this is a citation from Gilovich ]]

Ch9, Immune to Reality

About reality and illusion. Clever Hans—the horse that seems to respond to questions – was a fraud, but even his owner was unaware; he was signaling the horse subconsciously. We invent the reasons we do things, in a way that we truly believe them. We are strangers to ourselves.

Example: getting jilted at the alter. People claim later that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Similar example: a study in which applicants were rejected by a single judge, or by a jury. Beforehand, people thought either case would hurt equally; afterwards, rejection by jury stung most – obviously, it seems, but it wasn’t obvious beforehand.

Casablanca: the last lines about regret. We regret the things we *didn’t* do more than those we did, 197t.

The psychological mind is calibrated to reject small triggers, as too expensive. Thus we rationalize big triggers, like infidelity, and worry about smaller triggers [example on back cover about dirty dishes]. Thus painful initiations seem more worthwhile than smaller ones.

We’re more apt to find a positive view of things we’re stuck with. These trigger our psychological immune system. Examples; and of how we can’t predict the circumstance that will actually make us happier, p203. We prefer more freedom, but are more content when options are limited.

We associate pain and pleasure with circumstance, and we also tend to invent explanations for those relationships, and those explanations tend to ameliorate both the good and bad. Just as explanations reduce the impact of special events. And once explained, we stop thinking about them. Movies that end mysteriously stay in the mind. Even fake explanations calm the mind, and make one feel less happy, p208.

And yet people choose certainty over uncertainty, though it makes them unhappier. [[ is there a key point here about science v artistic mystery? Unweaving the rainbow? ]]

Can we remedy the problem of fallible foresight?

Ch10, Once Bitten

First-hand and second-hand knowledge is all there is, in pooping as in anything else; how we learn. And yet in our search for happiness we keep making the same mistakes. Why can’t we learn?

We do try, but the problem is we don’t remember correctly—the brain edits memories etc. The availability heuristic makes it easier to bring some things to mind than others. Unusual events are more memorable. That’s why it seems we always end up in the slowest line at the market –those are the cases we remember. P219. And we mistakenly conclude that those cases are more likely than they really are. We remember an awful train trip and think they will all be like that; or we remember the best moment of a vacation and forget all the dull times.

Author recalls not liking Schindler’s List—because it ended badly, despite how brilliant it was most of the way through. Because memory has a tendency to value the final items in a series. Examples: the hand in cold water experiment. Thus we make some strange choices, based on how we’ll remember it, than on the experience itself. Another example: two women, one whose final years are dull.

And memory tends to reconstruct in error; e.g. how California must have voted for Dukakis—but it didn’t, it went solidly Republican for years. Thus we can remember our own emotions incorrectly. E.g. pop theories of gender roles influence our memories of emotional states. People remember how they had expected to feel, not how they actually felt, p231.

So if our memories [practice] are fallible, what about coaching?

Ch11, Reporting Live from Tomorrow

Doris Day’s song “Que Sera Sera” is not helpful advice. We *should* be able to offer advice on what to do. We ask the teacher. Virtually everything we know we learned from others. And so we communicate with others, and we should be able to learn anything that way. And yet we still make bad decisions. Either we’re getting bad advice, or we’re rejecting good advice. Answer: both.

All our communication are attempts to make others think the way we do, p236. What makes this transmission of beliefs successful? Example of gene transmission—circular logic that is inescapable. P237. “Genes tend to be transmitted when they make us do the things that transmit genes.” Even if they have bad consequences.

What affects the transmission of beliefs? Accuracy [cf Dennett Brainstorms quote in note]. But false beliefs also transmit. Because some false beliefs may have beneficial consequences, e.g. by leading to the transmission of more accurate beliefs. “False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.” 239t.

One such belief is about wealth – studies show that wealth brings happiness only to a certain point. And yet people work to make more money, even if it doesn’t increase their happiness. Adam Smith. The economic problem of keeping an economy going is not the same as the personal problem of happiness. Thus the delusion that making money increases happiness. Q 241.8. It’s not a conspiracy; it just works out that way, 242t.

This is why we believe some things that simply aren’t true. The joy of money. The joy of children. Actual happiness varies. [[ but without the delusion, how would the race survive? ]] Because the opposite belief unravels any society that holds it, e.g. the Shakers. We do these things for reasons beyond our ken, 245t.

And so, what is the solution? There is a simple method to make accurate predictions about the future—but no one wants to use it.

Perhaps we ask other people who are having the experiences that we contemplate, and ask how they feel.

Because they are not you; everyone is unique.

Responses to this: Imagination has three shortcomings. It fills in and leaves out without telling us. It tends to project the present onto the future. It fails to recognize that things will look different once they happen, e.g. that bad things will look better (via the psychological immune system).

When surrogates are used, predictions about the future are much better. So the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feelings today, 251.6

Yet people don’t do this. Because the average person doesn’t think of themselves as average, p252; they see themselves as better, and so other opinions or experiences don’t apply. People see themselves as unique, better in some things and worse in others. We know ourselves the way we can’t know others. We enjoy thinking ourselves as special. And we tend to feel everyone is more different from one another than they actually are; all people are similar in many ways. Our similarities are irrelevant, and so we emphasize our differences. We have the impression that others don’t experience the same intensity of emotion that we do, 255m.

And this is why we don’t rely on surrogates. 256.3


We are the first species in history to be able to make decisions about where to live, what to do, whom to marry. Things changed; happiness is in our hands.

For most of recorded history, people lived where they were born, did what their parents had done, and associated with those who were doing the same. Millers milled, Smiths smithed, and little Smiths and little Millers married whom and when they were told. Social structures (such as religions and castes) and physical structures (such as mountains and oceans) were the great dictators that determined how, where, and with whom people would spend their lives, which left most folks with little to decide for themselves. But the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions changed all that, and the resulting explosion of personal liberty has created a bewildering array of options, alternatives, choices, and decisions that our ancestors never faced. For the very first time, our happiness is in our hands.

In 1738 Daniel Bernoulli claimed an answer based on probability and utility. But what we get is not what we experience. Only utility matters. Bernoulli suggested that each successive dollar provides a bit less pleasure than the one before it. People are sensitive to relative rather than absolute magnitudes. But Bernoulli was wrong in not understanding that many things besides wealth that affect one’s happiness. This book has explored many examples. That’s why it’s so difficult to predict our subjective experiences. We’re forced to rely on imagination. It’s a great talent, but it’s not perfect. At best, our intellects allow us to understand how we stumble.


Thumbnail summary:

So… we can’t imagine the future with any accuracy, and thus make bad decisions about what would make us happy. A simple solution would be to use surrogates – that is, other people who are having similar experiences – but we don’t because we feel special to an extent that we can’t rely on others.

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