The Book in Three Sentences

What makes humans different from every other animal is that we think about the future. However, our brains fall victim to a wide range of biases that cause our predictions of the future (and our memories of the past) to be inaccurate. Because of these mental errors it is remarkably difficult to predict what will make us feel happy.

Stumbling on Happiness summary

This is my book summary of Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • The greatest ability of the human brain is to imagine, to see the world as it has never been before.
  • “What makes humans different from every other animal is that they think about the future.”
  • Our brain makes predictions incredibly quickly and about nearly everything in life. When our experiences don't match what our brain expects, we feel surprised.
  • The frontal lobe is responsible for planning and anxiety — two key future-oriented functions.
  • Our frontal lobe is what allows us to be the only animal that experiences and envisions the future as we do.
  • We like to daydream because the mere dream itself can be a joy.
  • Within a few weeks even earthquake survivors tend to return to previous levels of optimism.
  • If we don't have the opportunity to predict our future it is more scary than if we can predict s bad future (variable shock study).
  • One of the central needs of humans is to control things. Enacting control over your own life is a source of pleasure.
  • Imagination’s three shortcomings are: 1) Imagination tends to add and remove details, but people do not realize that key details may be fabricated or missing from the imagined scenario. 2) Imagined futures (and pasts) are more like the present than they actually will be (or were). 3) Imagination fails to realize that things will feel different once they actually happen—most notably, the psychological immune system will make bad things feel not so bad as they are imagined to feel.
  • “Experience is unobservable to everyone except the person who it happens to.”
  • “The pursuit of happiness is built into the very definition of desire.”
  • The researcher / tourist study where a construction worker obscures the researcher with a door. We don't notice changes if we are not focused on an experience as it changes. In this case, we rely on our memories to remember and recognize a change, but our memories are quite faulty.
  • Nobody really knows what happiness feels like for others (and there are lots of research-backed reasons why), so that means we can’t say definitely whether someone in a situation that might seem bad to us (like being a conjoined twin) is actually less happy than we are. In fact, it’s entirely possible they are just as happy or even more so.
  • “They only think they’re happy because they don’t know what they are missing.” That’s actually the point. Not knowing what we are missing is the very thing that allows us to be happy despite not having some other opportunity.
  • The Experience-Stretching Hypothesis: your experiential background can dramatically change your happiness levels. Once you know something exists and have experienced pleasure from it, then your definition of happiness changes compared to what it was in the past.
  • Physiological arousal can be interpreted in a variety of ways and our interpretation of the arousal depends on what we believe caused it. But our beliefs can be mistaken and thus we think we’re experiencing one thing when, in fact, we are experiencing something else. We can be wrong about our own experiences.
  • “We might call this the Language Squishing Hypothesis because it suggests that an impoverished experiential background causes language to be squished, as it were, so that the full range of verbal labels actually represents a very restricted range of experiences.” The danger of this theory is that we all have different experiences and that means nobody actually knows what happiness really is.
  • Experience and awareness are closely related but not the same. Experience refers to partaking in an event. Awareness refers to being cognizant that the event is happening.
  • Psychological sciences will always be imperfect because we are trying to observe someone else's subjective experience, but it's the best we've got and the closest an outside observer can get to understanding the inside of someone else's mind.
  • The Law of Large Numbers: when a phenomenon arises from very large numbers of something, but not smaller versions of it. For example, billions of neurons lead to a conscious human brain, but two neurons are not a small version of consciousness.
  • One persons subjective experience of happiness (and life) might be imperfect and subjective, but when we look at hundreds or thousands of people truths and patterns start to emerge. The individual imperfections cancel out.
  • What we think is reality is merely just a version of reality. It's just our interpretation of the world. More in Chapter 3 of audiobook.
  • Our brains “fill in” all sorts of information each day. Our predictions are influenced by our experiences. We make assumptions about things that we predict based on the previous experiences we have had or heard about before.
  • “When we imagine the future we often do so in the blind spot of our minds eye.”
  • It is easy for our mind to notice what is there (a dog barking) but very difficult to notice the absence of something (you rarely recognize a dog not barking as an event because it's just silence). The silences, misses, and absences of events are crucial in determining the real world implications of things, but we rarely pick up on them. We tend to remember what did happen, but not what didn't happen.
  • A life with blindness is about a lot more than being blind, but when we imagine life as a blind person we tend to only think about seeing and forget all the other parts of life.
  • When we imagine the distant future, we tend to imagine things in generalities and gloss over the details. When we imagine things in the near future (like tomorrow), we tend to think in concrete details.
  • It could be useful to perform an exercise where you write down the concrete details of future tasks, events, goals, etc… This will force you to be clear about the specific action steps and fully imagine the details of the event rather than remaining in dream mode where the details are fuzzy or forgotten. Do this each week or month?
  • “One of imaginations shortcomings is that it takes liberties without telling us it has done so.”
  • “When scientists make erroneous predictions they almost always err by predicting that the future will be too much like the present.”
  • Everyone tends to use the present as a way to imagine the future and influence memories of the past. Thus, our memories and imaginations are often closer to our current reality than actual reality.
  • “One of the hallmarks of depression is that when depressed people think future events they can't imagine liking them very much.”
  • Your starting point matters because we often end up close to where we started. (This could be applied to many areas of life: memories, socioeconomic status, education, etc.)
  • Habituation effect decreases pleasure with repeated cycles, but it can fade over time. “Variety is the spice of life” can be false depending on timing. When considering options available to you during a single session (like many appetizers at one meal) variety is good. When considering options spaced out over time (like what to order at your favorite restaurant each month) go with your top pick every time because the habituation effect will decrease between each session and you'll get full enjoyment each time.
  • Presentism refers to judging historical events or people by modern day standards. It is largely useless and unfair because you can't expect historical figures to make the same decisions as we do now because they lived in a very different context. It's “sort of like arresting someone in the 1920s for not wearing a seatbelt.”
  • Most people overestimate how terrible traumatic events will actually be. For example, quadriplegics and earthquake victims generally rate themselves as much happier than people would ever imagine.
  • “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.”
  • We all look at our version of reality through rose colored lenses, but that version still needs to feel credible. If it's too good, then we will reject it.
  • Research shows that people actually feel less pain when they believe they are suffering for something of great value.
  • We have “psychological immune systems” which often get triggered when we experience particularly traumatic events. These systems protect us from events that we would assume would be intensely painful and thus we are able to recover from them better than we often assume we would.
  • “People are not aware of the fact that their defenses are more likely to be triggered by intense than mild suffering. Thus, they mis-predict their own emotional reactions to misfortunes of different sizes.”
  • “We’re more likely to look for and find a positive view of things we’re stuck with than of things we’re not.”
  • “It’s only when we can’t change our experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience.”
  • Inescapable situations will trigger our psychological immune systems, which then promote our brain’s ability to deliver a positive outlook and happiness from an inescapable situation.
  • We tend to overvalue freedom. We can easily imagine all of the benefits freedom will provide to us, but we tend to underestimate the fact that freedom hinders us from moving forward because we are constantly debating if their are better options out there. Only when we have fully committed and gone “all in” do we reach an inescapable situation where our brain can easily justify our behavior and circumstances.
  • Simply writing about traumatic events — especially if you explain the event itself — people show increased psychological and physiological well being including increased viral antibodies.
  • Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness. When events seem rare, unexplainable or strange, we tend to value them more than things that can be explained, seem ordinary, or otherwise make general sense. (Note: does this explain something about why we love to believe myths or religious stories, often with very strong emotions?)
  • “The least likely experience is often the most likely memory.”
  • “We tend to remember the best of times and the worst of times not the most likely of times.”
  • There is little evidence supporting the idea that women are more irritable during their menstrual cycle.
  • Wealth will make you much happier when you go from poverty to the middle class but not much more happy beyond that. Some making $5M per year is about as happy as someone making $100K per year.
  • Everyone says that having children is a wonderful and joyous experience. When you actually measure happiness of parents, however, you see that it is not raised at all. We continue to perpetuate that children bring happiness belief because it is a “super replicator.” That is, people who believe kids are great tend to have them (and pass on that belief) and people who believe the opposite tend to avoid having kids.
  • “The average person doesn’t seem herself as average.” One example: 90 percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer than average drivers. Rather than being caused by pure selfishness, this could be an indication of our tendency to believe we are unique and different from others (in good and bad ways).
  • “We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique.”
  • Bernoulli’s calculation for happiness: multiply the odds of getting what you want by the utility of getting what you want (i.e. probability x pleasure). Each successive dollar provides a little less pleasure than the one before it. “The determination of the value of an item must not be based on its price, but on the utility it yields.” The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to predict the utility we will get from our choices because of the many biases we have.
  • “People are sensitive to relative rather than absolute values.”

Reading Suggestions

This is a list of authors, books, and concepts mentioned in Stumbling on Happiness, which might be useful for future reading.

  • Phineas Gage and his famous railroad accident
  • Writings of John Locke
  • Writings of Immanuel Kant

Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert

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