Scott H Young

Stumbling on Happiness


I just finished Harvard psychology professor, Daniel Gilbert’s, new book “Stumbling on Happiness.” Happiness is the core reason for why we do anything as human beings. While I disagree with the hedonistic notion that happiness is the purpose for living, I do believe that happiness is the measurement we use to determine how well we are living. Therefore a better understanding of what makes us happy is really a better understanding of what makes a better life.

Ironically, this is book will not make you any happier. The book basically delves into all of the scientific reasons and evidence for why, if happiness is our fundamental drive as human beings, we are so bad at finding it. Gilbert stops just shy of really explaining how we can correct the problems he identifies in the book and leaves the reader to make sense of the rest. The book identifies some various interesting problems we encounter when trying to find happiness, some that I was completely unaware of.

Gilbert is witty and interesting to read. At the very least the book is interesting and entertaining. I wouldn’t dare spoil the book by giving away everything from it. I strongly suggest you pick up a copy for yourself. Not only will you learn a few things that you might never have been exposed to before, but you can appreciate Gilbert’s many witticisms and humorous anecdotes.

The major take home point from the books is simple. Our imaginations and memories are far worse then we believe them to be. Gilbert goes to incredible lengths to explain how the marvelous abilities of memory and imagination are ultimately lacking in helping us decide what will make us happy. Because of these flaws, we are actually very bad at imagining what will actually make us happy. Worse, these flaws mean that our memory of past happiness is obscured and biased so that it too isn’t always a reliable indicator.

Our imaginations, it seems, betray us by oversimplifying the future and missing critical details. In imagining what it would be like to live in Los Angeles, California, we think of the sunny climate but forget the smog and traffic. Although Gilbert blames this on the failings of the imagination I blame it on the sheer complexity of the universe. Imagination is incredibly powerful, but so much of the future cannot be predicted or visualized that our futures are constantly changing. Unfortunately in order to fill these gaps of variability we simply insert pieces of the present into the future. Our current skills, feelings, emotions and desires fill the gaps we see in our future. The problem lies when we believe that this picture is accurate and not just an guess.

The idea that our memories are also far less than perfect is also an interesting thought. Most of us believe our memories are like photographs of moments back in time. As Gilbert argues, these photographs are more like portraits with a great deal of artistic interpretation. Instead of preserving each moment, our memories preserve key details, or the essence, of an experience. When recalling that experience our mind simply guesses at what all the other details of that memory were.

The big problem with this is that how we remember feeling is often completely different then we actually felt at the time. Gilbert points out that when people are asked to predict how the would respond to their presidential candidate not being elected, they respond differently when this actually occurred. Unfortunately, memory repairs this inconsistency, because when asked how they felt about the failing of their presidential candidate afterwards, they report feeling how they predicted they felt, not how they actually felt. It seems that memory is actually closer to our imagination then a recorder of the past.

Another idea brought up in the book is that we are masters at blurring and refocusing the truth to see the world the way we want and not the way it is. While Gilbert’s obviously scientific perspective regards this moderate form of self-delusion as being damaging, I noticed that this is the exact skill many personal development authors advocate. Anthony Robbins frequently mentions that we need to use the references and focuses that empower us. Gilbert points out that it is our natural tendency to do just that.

Most people predict that horrible traumas would affect them more negatively then they actually do. It seems we have a psychological buffering system that covers us when we encounter extremely unfortunate circumstances. This seems to explain why we seem very capable at handling huge problems in our life, but all the little problems seem to overwhelm us. Unless an event is of a certain magnitude to activate this buffering system, we cannot defend against it.

Gilbert’s only recommendation in the entire book illustrating all of the problems we have in encountering happiness is simple. Since we cannot rely on memory or imagination it is far superior to use the current experiences of other people. Instead of imagining whether getting that extra bonus would make us happy, go ask someone who just got the extra bonus if it makes them happy. Gilbert believes strongly that few of us would actually do this step, despite the fact that it is shown to be a far more accurate predictor of the happiness we would experience than the one imagination or memory provide.

I’m still really digesting all of Gilbert’s ideas. Unlike self-help books, Gilbert simply presents the scientific research and explanations and leaves you to figure out what to do. I have my own initial thoughts on how this information could be utilized to lead happier and more successful lives, but I am sure the impact of this information will yield insights far later on as well. Some of the quick mental points I made for how we could use this information are:

  • Shift focus towards living in the present to avoid the stumbling blocks of imagination and memory. While imagination and memory are still invaluable tools, as Gilbert points out, we think they are far more powerful than they actually are. Using tools like velocity based goal setting we can shift our focus away from future and past events and still ensure our future is bright.
  • Record thoughts and feelings as they occur to prevent memory from blurring their impact. These practices could allow us to have an objective record of our emotions and feelings to prevent us from relying on our memory of how we felt in the past. Journaling or even taking notes of our experiences may be possible techniques to do this.
  • Being able to break our emotional patterns and states is incredibly important. This is an idea brought up by Anthony Robbins, but Gilbert’s evidence creates a natural extension to the power of its usage. As Gilbert points out, we cannot hold two emotional states at once. Our real emotional state always supercedes our imagined emotional state. In other words, we can’t imagine being full when we are hungry and we can’t imagine feeling happy when we are depressed. Tools for breaking out of a state temporarily may allow us to access our imaginative powers for our emotions.

These are just preliminary ideas. Stumbling on Happiness is one of the best books I have read in months and it provides a wealth of information about why we struggle to find happiness. I know that there is a great potential for tools and techniques for improving our happiness to come out of the information presented here. Even if Gilbert can’t provide many ideas on how we can improve our happiness, he can illustrate why we stumble.


Print Friendly
StumbleUpon It!

This website is supported, in part, by affiliate arrangements (usually Amazon). Affiliate relationships are always marked by bolded links.


4 Responses to “Stumbling on Happiness”

  1. [...] Stumbling on Happiness « The Past and the Future Steal Our Present [...]

  2. Jacin Steele says:

    Scott, I’ve just purchased my copy of this book from Amazon. It’s made its way through a number of blogs over the past few weeks. I love reading and learning about happiness and ways to increase it. The best book I’ve read on the subject is How We Choose to be Happy by Rick Foster and Greg Hicks. (My review of the book can be found here.) Like Stumbling on Happiness, the Foster and Hicks book is also a scientific study of happiness. I really enjoyed the book because it gives a nine-step outline of creating a life full of happiness. I really love this book and tell everyone I can about it.

  3. Roy Jacobsen says:

    Just out of curiosity, does Gilbert make any distinction between Happiness and Joy? Peace? Contentment?

    The notion is a bit fuzzy in my mind right now, but it seems to me that there may be a difference. (I’ll have to explore that notion a bit more.)

  4. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments Roy and Jacin,

    No, Gilbert doesn’t make any distinction between joy, peace, contentment and any other form of happiness. As he says, subjective experiences are like colors. You can’t describe one to another person. So my joy may feel like your peace and my contentment may feel like your joy. I’m of the mind that says we tend to differentiate the experiences based on the meaning we attach to them. We feel “peace” because we are doing something peaceful when we experience happiness. As Gilbert mentions with the flaws of memory, that experience subjectively may be no different than feeling contentment or joy even if the causes of those two feelings differ.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

Leave a Reply