Stumbling on Happiness


Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard who has an unlikely background. Stumbling on Happiness presents research with a commentary which makes it highly readable. Readable; but disappointing in what we discover about ourselves….

Gerard Ekdom looking confused

We are not as logical as we believe we are and we are more influenced by our emotions than we realize. As Gilbert states: “If the goal of science is to make us feel awkward and ignorant in the presence of things we once understood perfectly well, then psychology has succeeded above all others.” But, knowing more about how we make decisions and our pitfalls has the potential to enhance our lives, our happiness, and our interactions with others.

Gilbert starts with the evolution of our neuroanatomy. As our brains have expanded, our frontal lobes have developed disproportionately. Through evolution, we have become able to imagine which enables us to worry about and predict the future. The theme of the book is how we are generally not good at making those predictions, particularly about how we will feel in the future. The book is divided into six parts.


PROSPECTION: Gilbert discusses the “journey to elsewhen”. He presents research on how important it is for us to feel in control. “Being effective – changing things, influencing things, making things happen – is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control.” He describes us as the ape that looks forward and states: “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.”


SUBJECTIVITY: Gilbert presents “the science of happiness”. How can we compare experiences since we can’t have them both at the same time and, since everyone’s scales are different, we can’t easily compare the experiences of different individuals? Our memories of experiences are notoriously unreliable and “once we have had an experience, we cannot set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened.”


REALISM: “the belief that things are in reality as they appear to be in the mind”, Gilbert presents the first of three shortcomings of imagination that give rise to the illusion of foresight. “Imagination works so quickly, quietly, and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.” What Gilbert refers to as “the blind spot of the mind’s eye”. Of what can we be certain? “The elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory – at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads or a small set of key features. Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating – not by actually retrieving – the bulk of the information that we experience as memory.” In this section, Gilbert has a quote from George Miller. “The crowning intellectual achievement of the brain is the real world.”


Under the theme of “the hound of silence” (think Sherlock Holmes, not Simon and Garfunkel) Gilbert shares one of the most significant errors of our perception; our lack of awareness of what is missing.

PRESENTISM: Gilbert explains the second shortcoming of our imagination which is that it is not particularly imaginative. Our imagined future often looks like the present. “If the past is a wall with some holes, the future is a hole with no walls. Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling-in trick, and if the present lightly colors our remembered past, it thoroughly infuses our imagined futures. More simply said, most of us have a tough time imagining a tomorrow that is terribly different from today, and we find it particularly difficult to imagine that we will ever think, want, or feel differently than we do now.”


RATIONALIZATION: Gilbert demonstrates that our ability to predict how we will feel about future events when they happen is even worse than our ability to predict what the future might be. “The brain and the eye have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.” This bottom-up/top-down integration helps us function efficiently, but we can also deceive ourselves.


Lastly, under CORRIGIBILITY, Gilbert shares why it is so difficult for us to rise above these limitation. One way for us to make better predictions of how we will feel is to look at other people under similar circumstances. We reject this approach “Because, if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know that you are like most people.” “Ironically, the bias toward seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average.”


The Influence of Evolution

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

The American Spirit

Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

The End of Average