Stumbling on Happiness: book review

September 16, 2022

Author: Daniel Gilbert (Professor of Psychology at Harvard University)

Quick Links: Goodreads and Wikipedia


Overall Conclusions / Key Takeaways / Main Principles

The Big Problem / Question

How do we make good decisions that lead to good futures that we'll be happy with?

Don't's (What not to do)

Don't rely on our brain's systems for imagination, simulation, foresight, and prediction.

Don't rely on our brain's systems for retrospection, reflection, hindsight, and memory.

Don't rely on our brain's systems to think about the future or the past.

(Also: Don't rely on the bad advice of others that comes from super-replicating beliefs.)

Do's (What to do instead)

Use other people's current emotional experiences to inform decisions.

(Find others who are experiencing what you think might be your next "best future" and ask them what it's like and if they're happy.)

[From (mostly) the Foreword and Chapter 1]

What is this book about?

"[…] this is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy." — (Foreword, p. 15)

Context: Wanting is Expecting

To want something is to expect that: if you get it, then your future self will be happy with it.

We assume that we can just make accurate expectations based on our predictions about what our future selves will be happy with.

Problem: Wrong Expectations

Often we are wrong about our expectations on what our futures selves will be happy with.
We mistakenly think we're good at predicting what our future selves will be happy with.

How can we accurately predict what our future selves will be happy with?

Context: The Best Future

We want to make decisions and make good decisions.
Each decision leads to a future, and some futures are better than others.
The best decision should lead to the best future.

We want to predict: which decision will lead to which future and which future is best.
We tend to think we know: which future is best and which decision will lead to that future.

But the truth is that: the future is fundamentally different than it seems from our predictions and imaginations.

So how can we accurately predict which future is best?

Problem: Illusions of Foresight

Just as we experience illusions of hindsight, so too do we experience illusions of foresight.

Imagination is our tool to look forward into time (foresight).

Sometimes our imaginations lead us to foresee things as they will not be.

[From (mostly) Chapter 11 and Afterword]

Context: Our Happiness is in Our Hands

There are many key parts of our life that impact our happiness, including where we live, what we do, and who we do it with.

Only a few generations ago in recent history, we have entered a new paradigm where we get to choose these key parts of our lives, and so we are responsible for: making important decisions that impact our happiness.

We have several important decisions in life that impact our happiness.
(Ex: "where to live", "what to do", and "who to do it with". AKA: pick a city, pick a career, pick hobbies, pick friends, and pick a partner.)

Recent revolutions in civilization resulted in an explosion of personal liberty, granting us each a bewildering array of options, alternatives, choices, and decisions that our ancestors never faced. For the very first time, our happiness is in our hands.

Our Goal: We want to be happy, so we want to make good decisions.
Our Problem: We're not too great at this.
(Ex: "The average American moves more than 6 times, changes jobs more than 10 times, and marries more than once, which suggests that most of us are making more than a few poor choices.")

Our Question: How should we make our decisions?
Of all the possible lives we can pick from, how do we choose a life that we will ultimately be happy with?

Perhaps we have 2 options:

  1. Imagination: Use our imagination to simulate possible futures.
  2. Surrogation: Ask others about their current experiences.

Our Default Choice: Imagination / Simulation

Typically, we try to: imagine / simulate future selves, circumstances, and experiences.

When left to our own devices, we tend to just try utilizing the tool of imagination to simulate possible future selves and pick the best choice (the best simulation).

(Our brain's imagination capabilities allow us to simulate future selves and future circumstances, and in these simulations we try to evaluate and compare those imagined experiences.)

Sadly, Our Imagination is Flawed

We're bad at imagination; our ability to imagine future selves is not fine-tuned.

Problem: Inaccuracy

When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won't really come to pass and leave out details that will.

Problem: Presentism

When we imagine future feelings, we find it impossible to ignore what we are feeling now and impossible to recognize how we will think about the things that happen later.

Conclusion: Don't Use Imagination

We shouldn't rely on our emotional future simulation abilities to make decisions.

The Neglected Choice: "Surrogation" (Asking Others)

Instead of trying to imagine everything, we could just ask others about everything.

(We have an endless pile of information about everything and what it feels like to do anything and make any decision.)

"[…] the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today." — (Ch 11, p 236)

How should we inquire about other people's experiences?

Perhaps we have two ways of approaching this:

  1. Ask them about their past experiences.
  2. Ask them about their current, present experiences.

The Past (Reflection / Memory)

We could ask people to tell us about their past experiences.

Problem: Memory is flawed, so we should not rely on testimony.

Conclusion: Don't use anyone's retrospection, reflection, or memory (including your own).

The Present (Introspection)

We could ask people to tell us about their current experiences.

Because both imagination (simulating future experiences) and memory (remembering past experiences) are flawed, we should not rely on them to make decisions.

Instead we should try to ask other people to introspect on their current inner states.

And yet, even this still has problems:

  1. A lot of the advice from others is bad (and just systemically perpetuated).
  2. We reject the good advice of others.

Problem 1: Accepting Bad Advice

Inaccurate super-replicating beliefs tend to fuel the needs of the social systems yet also mislead people.

Often, bad advice comes from super-replicating beliefs that aren't good for the individual but are great at cyclical transmission and usually necessary for the larger social systems.

Problem 2: Rejecting Good Advice

The fingerprint fallacy leads us to believe that we are each unique, different, and special.

"[…] the experience of a single randomly selected individual can sometimes provide a better basis for predicting your future experience than your own imagination can." — (Ch 11, p 232)

And yet… We find this difficult to believe. Why? Because we believe we're different, unique, and special.

  • Most people don't know they're like most people.
  • The average person doesn't see herself as average.
  • We tend to think of ourselves as different from others.
  • We almost always see ourselves as unique.
  • The self considers itself to be a very special person.

Why do we believe we're different, not average, unique, and special?

  1. We learn about ourselves in a special, unique way (unlike how we learn about anyone or anything else).
  2. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. (And thus we overestimate it.)
    • We prize our unique identities.
    • We strive to distance and distinguish ourselves.
    • We love individuality.
    • We value our uniqueness.
  3. We tend to overestimate everyone's uniqueness.
    • We think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.
    • We think people are more varied than they actually are.
    • We overestimate the magnitude and frequency of people's differences.
    • We spend much of our time searching for, attending to, thinking about, and remembering people's differences.

We tend to refuse to believe other people's experiences and feelings are legitimate and useful approximations and predictions. We think other people are too different from us and thus deny their emotional experiences as being similar enough to what our own would be. (Why? Because we wrongly believe in the variability and uniqueness of individuals.)

"Alas, we think of ourselves as unique entities — minds unlike any others — and thus we often reject the lessons that the emotional experience of others has to teach us." — (Ch 11, p 241)

(In) The End

"[…] surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one's future emotions, but because we don't realize just how similar we all are, we reject this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be." — (Ch 11, p 240)

We use our flawed and fallible imaginations instead of this reliable, cheap, and effective method of predicting future emotions because we don't realize just how similar we all are.