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Stumbling on Happiness

Written By Daniel Gilbert, Reviewed By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

I’m drafting this book review sitting by the water in one of Auckland’s regional parks. If you had asked me yesterday how happy I would be to be sitting (as I am) under a grey sky that threatens drizzle, and in a different park to our usual favourite haunt due to a nasty northerly, I would have rated my expected happiness at about 3 out of 10. But here I am, and I would rate my happiness easily at 7. As it turns out, the air is warm, the kids are having fun playing with a floating log, the passers-by are friendly and cheerful, and I’m delighted to have discovered a great little park with a historic homestead at its heart.

So why, yesterday, did I misjudge my future happiness so badly?

It turns out my misjudgement is nothing unusual for a regular member of the homo sapiens species. Making mistakes in gauging what will make us happy is endemic to the human condition, and this has been proved time and again, not only in life but also in the laboratory.

But why do we get it so wrong? That’s what Daniel Gilbert sets out to unravel in ‘Stumbling on Happiness’.

Dan the Man

Ah, Dan! Yes, I know that sounds a vaguely disrespectful way to refer to this Professor of Psychology at Harvard University but after a few minutes’ reading this book it is hard to imagine ever calling him Professor. And I tell you this because one of the unexpected delights of this book is Dan’s humour. He had me laughing from the opening words of the first page, with his Acknowledgements blurb:

This is the part of the book in which the author typically claims that nobody writes a book by himself and then names all the people who presumably wrote the book for him. It must be nice to have friends like that.

I thought he might burn out – one witty joke and the rest of the book mired in heavy psychospeak – but no. Within a few pages his syntax made me think he was channelling Douglas Adams and his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or more precisely, the 2005 remake of the movie of the book with Stephen Fry as the narrator. Fellow fans, I swear you could read the whole book with your mind’s ear taking on Fry’s resonant vowels.

The book ends with a final laugh in the form of a Q&A with Dan. Needless to say it contains a few more pithy comments, such as:

“Self help books help. They help by making their authors money.”

What This Book Is Not About

This book is not about interventions and practices that will make you happy, neither those listed in the annals of scientifically-researched positive psychology journals nor those found in the more anecdotal self-help books. Note to self: read the back cover blurb better. That would improve my predictive skills in at least one area!

Who Should Read It?

I recommend you read it if you are:

  • in the mood for a non-fiction book that will both educate and entertain;
  • interested in how the human brain works in terms of memory and imagination;
  • contemplating a significant change in career or business that you are sure will make you happier. The latter stages of this book will help you make a more informed decision!

Stumbling Along

This book begins with an examination of the role of our splendidly developed frontal lobes. Apparently, we can live without them well enough but we can’t deal with concepts like ‘later’ without them: they confer on homo sapiens our unique ability to think about the future, to plan and to worry.

Next the book moves on to examining the meaning of happiness. Of all the book, this part dragged for me as Dan wrestled with a concept he called ’emotional happiness’ and explored whether people have the same experience range for happiness and talk about that range in comparable ways. Perhaps most striking here was the argument that we should not judge others’ happiness (or unhappiness) by our own expectations of what we would feel in their shoes because we’re likely to be wrong. The rich aren’t super-happy and the quadriplegics aren’t chronically depressed. This fits with other readings in positive psychology: even people who have suffered greatly tend to recover eventually to close to their pre-loss level of happiness.

However, most of this book is about the ‘stumbling’ part of ‘Stumbling on Happiness’.

Three Illusions

There are three ‘illusions of foresight’ that our brains play on us as we imagine the future, and all three are based on basic principles of human psychology. The illusions are:

  1. Realism – our imagination works so quickly and quietly that we believe its products when we really shouldn’t. We also don’t notice when our imaginings miss out important details, as we will see later.
  2. Presentism – our imagined future often looks very much like the actual present because what is happening now weighs very heavily on our minds. That’s why, when we are stuffed with food, we underestimate how much we will enjoy a big meal in 24 hours’ time.
  3. Rationalisation – our imagination has a hard time foreseeing how things will appear to us once they have happened. In particular, really bad things don’t look so bad when they arrive because our psychological defences kick in (“getting fired will let me pursue my true passion”).

All of these illusions are explored with examples of research, all referenced in the 30 page Notes section, as you would expect of a Harvard professor, and also explored with the aforesaid humour, which you wouldn’t expect.

Things to Ponder

This book contains many interesting ideas and stories. Two as a taster:

  • Why do bad beliefs, i.e. those that can cause us damage, survive? For example, why do we persist in believing money will buy happiness and thus keep running on our personal economic treadmills? Because like some bad genes, some bad beliefs encourage their own transmission – in other words, those who hold the belief engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. Dan suggests that believing wealth will bring happiness keeps the economy flourishing, which supports a stable society, which serves as a network for propagating the myth of wealth bringing happiness.
  • What happens last is what we remember most, and it powerfully influences how we feel about something – unless we are forced to stop and think carefully. Thus Dan was certain he hated the film Schindler’s List and his wife was certain he had enjoyed it when they had watched it years earlier. They watched it a second time and Dan found he indeed enjoyed the film and only hated the closing sequence that showed commentary from real life survivors who Schindler had helped. Those two final ‘mawkish’ minutes had overwhelmed his positive experiences and left him certain that he hated the film. Only when forced to re-evaluate did he observe the truth.

The Missing Details

Returning to where I started, why would I have misjudged my happiness at the park so badly? To which of the three illusions would I have fallen prey? As far as I can see, it would have been mostly the realism issue.

Half of the problem with realism is that, as we look to an event, whether forward in imagination or backward in memory, our brains swiftly fill in any blanks – so swiftly we don’t realise it has done so. The implications for eye witness accounts in court are pretty frightening. However, Dan, and other researchers and thinkers before him, from Cicero to Bacon, reckon our brains’ inability to notice what is missing causes us even more problems.

Blind Spots

Why does it matter? Because as we envisage future events, we simply treat the details of those events that we don’t imagine as if they were not going to happen. To apply this to my park experience, if invited to imagine an unknown regional park under grey skies, my brain, I’m sure, would have immediately reminded me of a 1996 flooded campsite with a young baby. And next I think I would have imagined trudging round a strange place, hunting to find a half ways decent picnic spot with everyone getting grumpier and grumpier. I would never have imagined the details of a wonderful old homestead, a great view, a playtime log, and a warm, if overcast, day. If I had, I would no doubt have rated my chances of happiness much higher. The human brain, alas, is not at all well-wired to notice missing details and so it puts too much emphasis on the details it does observe and remember.

The Solutions to Imagination’s Shortcomings?

In the last part of the book, Dan has a simple remedy for imagination’s various failings. He says it’s one “that you will almost certainly not accept”. I’ve read it and I fear he is right, even though it makes excellent sense.

And no, I’m not going to tell you what he advises, you will have to get your own copy to find out!

Last Words

I think the last words should go to the author Dan Gilbert reminded me of – Douglas Adams. Here are Adams’ opening words of The Hitchhiker’s Guide. They sum up the realism illusion so well:

“It’s an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.”

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