Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert

Anant Jain
Feb 11, 2018 · 3 min read
Image for post
Image for post

There’s a good chance that things you think will make you happy, won’t —this is the premise of Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert. It was one of the most well-written and funny books I read in 2017. It can teach you a fair bit about psychology if you’re a complete beginner (like I was), and is a fairly interesting read, but it’s the writing style that wins it for me. To give you a flavor, the book is full of gems like these:

“Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.”

Or this one:

“My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it.”

Here are the main ideas discussed in the book:

Prospection

The human brain is an “anticipation machine” and prospection, or “making future” is the most important thing it does. Later in the book, we will get to the three flaws of our imagination that lead us to predict this future poorly: in particular what makes us happy.

Subjectivity

In this part, Dan tries to define what it is exactly we are going after. What does happiness even mean? How can we hope to achieve a solid, scientific answer to questions about a feeling? Happiness is a subjective experience that is difficult to describe to ourselves and to others. Conjoined twins think they are happy too, but anyone not in their situation won’t agree with them.

Onto flaws of our imagination, or say, our cognitive biases that lead us to stumble on happiness:


Flaw #1: Realism

We use our eyes to look into space, and our imaginations to look into time. Quite often, our imaginations lead us to foresee things as they will not be. Our imagination works so quickly, quietly and effectively that we are insufficiently skeptical of its products.

Flaw #2: Presentism

Imagined futures (and pasts) are more like the present than they actually will be (or were). Our imagination’s products are not particularly imaginative after all. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present. Similarly, our interpretations of the past are heavily influenced by our present.

Flaw #3: Rationalization

Imagination has a hard time telling us how we will think about the future when we get there. The psychological immune system will make bad things feel not so bad as they are imagined to feel.


So what can we do about it? Not much really:

Corrigibility

We are incorrigible when it comes to remedying our illusions of foresight by personal experience, or by wisdom we inherit. Something we can attempt to do: use other people’s experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it. It’s a simple remedy that we find extremely hard to accept, and almost never do. It’s surprising how similar people are in much of their experiences.


A word of warning: if you have read any text on psychology, you won’t find this book interesting in terms of learning anything new. You should still read it purely for the great writing style, and maybe as a lesson on how to convey complex ideas in a very simple language understandable by almost anyone.

This is #5 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site. You can read the rest of them .

Image for post
Image for post
Happiness, after all, is a choice. Photo by on .

Anant Jain

I write reviews of non-fiction books and essays on…

Anant Jain

Written by

Tech, startups, engineering, product design, etc. Now @brexhq . Past: Co-founder @commonlounge . @iitdelhi ’12. Moved from Medium to https://anantja.in

Anant Jain

I write reviews of non-fiction books and essays on startups, fitness, tech and design.

Anant Jain

Written by

Tech, startups, engineering, product design, etc. Now @brexhq . Past: Co-founder @commonlounge . @iitdelhi ’12. Moved from Medium to https://anantja.in

Anant Jain

I write reviews of non-fiction books and essays on startups, fitness, tech and design.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch

Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore

Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store