Stumbling On Happiness

I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist teachings lately, and I think Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling On Happiness is a good researched-backed complement to Buddhism. It partially answers the question of why we can’t seem to stay in the present moment. But it’s a lot more than that – it’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. For a taste, below is a summary structured around my Kindle notes.

my takeaways:

  1. Shit, we humans are crazy. We should just give up trying to figure our my brains. Just kidding! But seriously, be present.
  2. When we look back on past decisions, we regret inaction much more than action. So don’t be afraid to make bold decisions, take risks, and in general do something rather than nothing.
  3. Self-propagating ideas are a fascinating phenomenon. I often wonder how false beliefs end up being so pervasive in societies. There ya go.
  4. We have much more in common with others than we think we do, and we should use them as surrogates to determine our future happiness.
  5. Uncertainty can prolong and preserve our happiness. Learn to embrace it. Be conscious of your brain’s tendency to add an explanation to everything.

my notes

We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy.

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. As one philosopher noted, the human brain is an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing it does.

Our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transport ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there. Rather than calculating utilities with mathematical precision, we simply step into tomorrow’s shoes and see how well they fit. Our ability to project ourselves forward in time and experience events before they happen enables us to learn from mistakes without making them and to evaluate actions without taking them. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it. And yet, as impressive as it is, our ability to simulate future selves and future circumstances is by no means perfect. When we imagine future circumstances, we fill in details that won’t really come to pass and leave out details that will. 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.

We do this automatically

brains are continuously making predictions about the immediate, local, personal future of their owners without their owners’ awareness. Rather than saying that such brains are predicting, let’s say that they are nexting. Our brains were made for nexting, and that’s just what they’ll do.

Why do we do it?

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the future even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have. (…) People find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself… research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed.

So if the question is “Why should we want to control our futures?” then the surprisingly right answer is that it feels good to do so—period. Impact is rewarding. Mattering makes us happy. The act of steering one’s boat down the river of time is a source of pleasure, regardless of one’s port of call.

Unfortunately, the return on our nexting investment isn’t that great – we don’t do it very well!

We seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

We are forced to consider the possibility that what clearly seems to be the better life may actually be the worse life and that when we look down the time line at the different lives we might lead, we may not always know which is which.

This book is about how and why our nexting / predicting / imagining falls short.

The best way to understand this particular shortcoming of imagination (the faculty that allows us to see the future) is to understand the shortcomings of memory (the faculty that allows us to see the past) and perception (the faculty that allows us to see the present). As you will learn, the shortcoming that causes us to misremember the past and misperceive the present is the very same shortcoming that causes us to misimagine the future.



imagination’s first shortcoming is its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us. No one can imagine every feature and consequence of a future event, hence we must consider some and fail to consider others. Our error is in our tendency to equate our subjective sense of things with the objective properties of reality – we consider our version to be the real thing.

We alter our memories by filling in details that weren’t actually there

This general finding—that information acquired after an event alters memory of the event—has been replicated so many times in so many different laboratory and field settings that it has left most scientists convinced of two things.6 First, the act of remembering involves “filling in” details that were not actually stored; and second, we generally cannot tell when we are doing this because filling in happens quickly and unconsciously.

your brain fills in the scene with this information. That’s right, it invents things, creates things, makes stuff up! It doesn’t consult you about this, doesn’t seek your approval. It just makes its best guess about the nature of the missing information and proceeds to fill in the scene.

Our brains use facts and theories to make guesses about past events, and so too do they use facts and theories to make guesses about past feelings.18 Because feelings do not leave behind the same kinds of facts that presidential elections and ancient civilizations do, our brains must rely even more heavily on theories to construct memories of how we once felt. When those theories are wrong, we end up misremembering our own emotions.

We remember feeling as we believe we must have felt. The problem with this error of retrospection is that it can keep us from discovering our errors of prospection.

we are our memories. And yet, research reveals that memory is less like a collection of photographs than it is like a collection of impressionist paintings rendered by an artist who takes considerable license with his subject. The more ambiguous the subject is, the more license the artist takes, and few subjects are more ambiguous than emotional experience.

We misperceive experiences by doing the same thing – filling in details that weren’t there

The powerful and undetectable filling in that suffuses our remembrances of things past pervades our perceptions of things present as well.

Kant’s new theory of idealism claimed that our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains, but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality.

The historian Will Durant performed the remarkable feat of summarizing Kant’s point in a single sentence: “The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost—one might say—a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli.”

Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.

Just as we add extra things to our perception and memory, we also leave things out…

Pigeons have no trouble figuring out that the presence of a light signals an opportunity for eating, but they cannot learn the same thing about the absence of a light. Research suggests that human beings are a bit like pigeons in this regard. (…) studies show that when ordinary people want to know whether two things are causally related, they routinely search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did happen and fail to search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did not.

a story (which, it turns out, he borrowed from Cicero, who told it seventeen centuries earlier) about a visitor to a Roman temple. To impress the visitor with the power of the gods, the Roman showed him a portrait of several pious sailors whose faith had presumably allowed them to survive a recent shipwreck. When pressed to accept this as evidence of a miracle, the visitor astutely inquired, “But where are the pictures of those who perished after taking their vows?” Scientific research suggests that ordinary folks like us rarely ask to see pictures of the missing sailors.

This “realism” in our everyday perception seems to be produced by the brain’s “system 1″…

we do not outgrow realism so much as we learn to outfox it, and that even as adults our perceptions are characterized by an initial moment of realism. (…) we automatically assume that our subjective experience of a thing is a faithful representation of the thing’s properties. Only later—if we have the time, energy, and ability—do we rapidly repudiate that assumption and consider the possibility that the real world may not actually be as it appears to us. Piaget described realism as “a spontaneous and immediate tendency to confuse the sign and the thing signified,” and research shows that this tendency to equate our subjective sense of things with the objective properties of those things remains spontaneous and immediate throughout our lives.

Just as we misremember and misperceive the past and present, we “misimagine” the future. Often, it’s the same mechanisms as play…

Our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected. The mistake we make when we momentarily ignore the filling-in trick and unthinkingly accept the validity of our memories and our perceptions is precisely the same mistake we make when we imagine our futures.

Our inattention to absences influences the way that we think about the future. Just as we do not remember every detail of a past event (what color socks did you wear to your high school graduation?) or see every detail of a current event (what color socks is the person behind you wearing at this very moment?), so do we fail to imagine every detail of a future event.

we have an equally troubling tendency to treat the details of future events that we don’t imagine as though they were not going to happen. In other words, we fail to consider how much imagination fills in, but we also fail to consider how much it leaves out.

Just as objects that are near to us in space appear to be more detailed than those that are far away, so do events that are near to us in time. Whereas the near future is finely detailed, the far future is blurry and smooth.

When we said yes we were thinking about babysitting in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the fact that the detail-free babysitting we were imagining would not be the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience.

perception is the wisest of the triplets. We rarely mistake a distant buffalo for a nearby insect, but when the horizon is temporal rather than spatial, we tend to make the same mistake that Pygmies do.

The difficult part of all this is that it happens automatically. This helps us function, but it also sets us up for disappointment when the future doesn’t unfold just so. It also makes it difficult to know ourselves.

We see things that aren’t really there and we remember things that didn’t really happen, and while these may sound like symptoms of mercury poisoning, they are actually critical ingredients in the recipe for a seamlessly smooth and blessedly normal reality. But that smoothness and normality come at a price. Even though we are aware in some vaguely academic sense that our brains are doing the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine.

The problem isn’t that our brains fill in and leave out. God help us if they didn’t. No, the problem is that they do this so well that we aren’t aware it is happening. As such, we tend to accept the brain’s products uncritically and expect the future to unfold with the details—and with only the details—that the brain has imagined. One of imagination’s shortcomings, then, is that it takes liberties without telling us it has done so.



Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future. When imagination paints a picture of the future, many of the details are necessarily missing, and imagination solves this problem by filling in the gaps with details that it borrows from the present.

We almost always err by predicting that the future will be too much like the present… when brains plug holes in their conceptualizations of yesterday and tomorrow, they tend to use a material called today.

people misremember their own pasts by recalling that they once thought, did, and said what they now think, do, and say.

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.

something important about how the brain imagines, namely, that it enlists the aid of its sensory areas when it wants to imagine the sensible features of the world. (…) we generally do not sit down with a sheet of paper and start logically listing the pros and cons of the future events we are contemplating, but rather, we contemplate them by simulating those events in our imaginations and then noting our emotional reactions to that simulation. Just as imagination previews objects, so does it prefeel events.

Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective. Like the sponge, we think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Imagination cannot easily transcend the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception.

when we ask our brains to look at a real object and an imaginary object at the same time, our brains typically grant the first request and turn down the second.

the brain has strict priorities about what it will see, hear, and feel and what it will ignore. Imagination’s requests are often denied.

We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present. But rather than recognizing that this is the inevitable result of the Reality First policy, we mistakenly assume that the future event is the cause of the unhappiness

For most of us, space is the concrete thing that time is like.

Reasoning by metaphor is an ingenious technique that allows us to remedy our weaknesses by capitalizing on our strengths—using things we can visualize to think, talk, and reason about things we can’t.

Alas, metaphors can mislead as well as illuminate, and our tendency to imagine time as a spatial dimension does both of these things.

So how do we decide how we will feel about things that are going to happen in the future? The answer is that we tend to imagine how we would feel if those things happened now, and then we make some allowance for the fact that now and later are not exactly the same thing.

Starting points matter because we often end up close to where we started. When people predict future feelings by imagining a future event as though it were happening in the present and then correcting for the event’s actual location in time, they make the same error.

Because we naturally use our present feelings as a starting point when we attempt to predict our future feelings, we expect our future to feel a bit more like our present than it actually will.16

Our sensitivity to relative rather than absolute magnitudes is not limited to physical properties such as weight, brightness, or volume. It extends to subjective properties, such as value, goodness, and worth as well.

Because it is so much easier for me to remember the past than to generate new possibilities, I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.

We make mistakes when we compare with the past instead of the possible. When we do compare with the possible, we still make mistakes.

The facts are these: (a) value is determined by the comparison of one thing with another; (b) there is more than one kind of comparison we can make in any given instance; and (c) we may value something more highly when we make one kind of comparison than when we make a different kind of comparison. These facts suggest that if we want to predict how something will make us feel in the future, we must consider the kind of comparison we will be making in the future and not the kind of comparison we happen to be making in the present.

In short, the comparisons we make have a profound impact on our feelings, and when we fail to recognize that the comparisons we are making today are not the comparisons we will make tomorrow, we predictably underestimate how differently we will feel in the future.

Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.



Imagination’s third shortcoming is its failure to recognize that things will look different once they happen—in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better. When we imagine losing a job, for instance, we imagine the painful experience (“The boss will march into my office, shut the door behind him . . .”) without also imagining how our psychological immune systems will transform its meaning

The fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don’t affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to.11

people respond to stimuli as they are represented in the mind. Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which people react.

Most stimuli are ambiguous—that is, they can mean more than one thing—and the interesting question is how we disambiguate them—that is, how we know which of a stimulus’s many meanings to infer on a particular occasion. Research shows that context, frequency, and recency are especially important in this regard.

But there is another factor of equal importance and greater interest. Like rats and pigeons, each of us has desires, wishes, and needs. We are not merely spectators of the world but investors in it, and we often prefer that an ambiguous stimulus mean one thing rather than another.

Because experiences are inherently ambiguous, finding a “positive view” of an experience is often as simple as finding the “below-you view” of a Necker cube, and research shows that most people do this well and often.

The world is this way, we wish the world were that way, and our experience of the world—how we see it, remember it, and imagine it—is a mixture of stark reality and comforting illusion. We can’t spare either. If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we’d be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning, but if we were to experience the world exactly as we want it to be, we’d be too deluded to find our slippers.

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.26

we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness.

If views are acceptable only when they are credible, and if they are credible only when they are based on facts, then how do we achieve positive views of ourselves and our experience? We cook the facts. There are many different techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, and different techniques often lead to different conclusions, which is why scientists disagree about the dangers of global warming, the benefits of supply-side economics, and the wisdom of low-carbohydrate diets.

We derive support for our preferred conclusions by listening to the words that we put in the mouths of people who have already been preselected for their willingness to say what we want to hear.

The bottom line is this: The brain and the eye may 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.

We ask whether facts allow us to believe our favored conclusions and whether they compel us to believe our disfavored conclusions.51 Not surprisingly, disfavored conclusions have a much tougher time meeting this more rigorous standard of proof.

Distorted views of reality are made possible by the fact that experiences are ambiguous—that is, they can be credibly viewed in many ways, some of which are more positive than others. To ensure that our views are credible, our brain accepts what our eye sees. To ensure that our views are positive, our eye looks for what our brain wants. The conspiracy between these two servants allows us to live at the fulcrum of stark reality and comforting illusion.

When we cook facts, we are similarly unaware of why we are doing it,

The benefit of all this unconscious cookery is that it works; but the cost is that it makes us strangers to ourselves.

we blithely assume that the dreadful view we have when we look forward to the event is the dreadful view we’ll have when we look back on it. In short, we do not realize that our views will change because we are normally unaware of the processes that change them. This fact can make it quite difficult to predict one’s emotional future.

Why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions.

The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

Apparently, people are not aware of the fact that their defenses are more likely to be triggered by intense than mild suffering, thus they mispredict their own emotional reactions to misfortunes of different sizes. Failed marriages and lost jobs are the kinds of large-scale assaults on our happiness that trigger our psychological defenses, but these defenses are not triggered by broken pencils, stubbed toes, or slow elevators.

Inescapable, inevitable, and irrevocable circumstances trigger the psychological immune system, but, as with the intensity of suffering, people do not always recognize that this will happen.

Explanations allow us to make full use of our experiences, but they also change the nature of those experiences. Explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows us to stop thinking about them. Oddly enough, an explanation doesn’t actually have to explain anything to have these effects—it merely needs to seem as though it does.

Uncertainty can preserve and prolong our happiness, thus we might expect people to cherish it. In fact, the opposite is generally the case.

The eye and the brain are conspirators, and like most conspiracies, theirs is negotiated behind closed doors, in the back room, outside of our awareness. Because we do not realize that we have generated a positive view of our current experience, we do not realize that we will do so again in the future. Not only does our naïveté cause us to overestimate the intensity and duration of our distress in the face of future adversity, but it also leads us to take actions that may undermine the conspiracy. We are more likely to generate a positive and credible view of an action than an inaction, of a painful experience than of an annoying experience, of an unpleasant situation that we cannot escape than of one we can. And yet, we rarely choose action over inaction, pain over annoyance, and commitment over freedom. The processes by which we generate positive views are many: We pay more attention to favorable information, we surround ourselves with those who provide it, and we accept it uncritically. These tendencies make it easy for us to explain unpleasant experiences in ways that exonerate us and make us feel better. The price we pay for our irrepressible explanatory urge is that we often spoil our most pleasant experiences by making good sense of them.


So, how to proceed?

Our tour of imagination has covered a lot of ground—from realism to presentism to rationalization—so before moving on to our final destination, it may be useful to locate ourselves on the big map. We’ve seen how difficult it is to predict accurately our emotional reactions to future events because it is difficult to imagine them as they will happen, and difficult to imagine how we’ll think about them once they do. Throughout this book, I’ve compared imagination to perception and memory, and I’ve tried to convince you that foresight is just as fallible as eyesight and hindsight.

One suggestion is to ask or interview people about the value or virtues of potential futures.

Yes, our ability to imagine our future emotions is flawed—but that’s okay, because we don’t have to imagine what it would feel like to marry a lawyer, move to Texas, or eat a snail when there are so many people who have done these things and are all too happy to tell us about them.

we can travel in the dimensions of space, and the chances are pretty good that somewhere in those other three dimensions there is another human being who is actually experiencing the future event that we are merely thinking about.

when people tell us about their current experiences, they are providing us with the kind of report about their subjective state that is considered the gold standard of happiness measures.

when people are deprived of the information that imagination requires and are thus forced to use others as surrogates, they make remarkably accurate predictions about their future feelings, which suggests that the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.

the law of large numbers suggests that when a measurement is too imperfect for our tastes, we should not stop measuring. Quite the opposite—we should measure again and again until niggling imperfections yield to the onslaught of data.

if the methodological and conceptual tools that science has developed do not allow us to measure the feelings of a single individual with pinpoint accuracy, they at least allow us to go stumbling in the dark with pickled rulers to measure dozens of individuals again and again.

BUT, you need to watched out for false beliefs that somehow facilitate their own “means of transmission”…

that inaccurate beliefs can prevail in the belief-transmission game if they somehow facilitate their own “means of transmission.” In this case, the means of transmission is not sex but communication, and thus any belief—even a false belief—that increases communication has a good chance of being transmitted over and over again. False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.

The word hogwash also refers to the falsehoods people tell one another.

As we have seen, ideas can flourish if they preserve the social systems that allow them to be transmitted. Because individuals don’t usually feel that it is their personal duty to preserve social systems, these ideas must disguise themselves as prescriptions for individual happiness.

That consumerism will make you happy is one of those self-propogating false-beliefs…

As Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, wrote in 1776: “The desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the conveniences and ornaments of building, dress, equipage, and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary.”

the fundamental needs of a vibrant economy and the fundamental needs of a happy individual are not necessarily the same.

Smith believed that people want just one thing—happiness—hence economies can blossom and grow only if people are deluded into believing that the production of wealth will make them happy.

In short, the production of wealth does not necessarily make individuals happy, but it does serve the needs of an economy, which serves the needs of a stable society, which serves as a network for the propagation of delusional beliefs about happiness and wealth.

the belief-transmission game teaches us that the propagation of false beliefs does not require that anyone be trying to perpetrate a magnificent fraud on an innocent populace. There is no cabal at the top, no star chamber, no master manipulator whose clever program of indoctrination and propaganda has duped us all into believing that money can buy us love. Rather, this particular false belief is a super-replicator because holding it causes us to engage in the very activities that perpetuate it.16

We don’t often use others as surrogates to predict our future happiness because we think we’re special! But we overestimate how special we really are…

Ironically, the bias toward seeing ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average too.

We don’t always see ourselves as superior, but we almost always see ourselves as unique. Even when we do precisely what others do, we tend to think that we’re doing it for unique reasons. For

The list of differences is long but the conclusion to be drawn from it is short: The self considers itself to be a very special person.

What makes us think we’re so darned special? Three things, at least. First, even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We are the only people in the world whom we can know from the inside. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs.

The Lake Wobegon effect apparently extends into almost every area of life, with most people thinking they are more intelligent, fair, attractive, skilled, etc. than average.

The second reason is that we enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Most of us want to fit in well with our peers, but we don’t want to fit in too well.

The third reason why we tend to overestimate our uniqueness is that we tend to overestimate everyone’s uniqueness—that is, we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are.

individual similarities are an inconspicuous backdrop against which a small number of relatively minor individual differences stand out in bold relief. Because we spend so much time searching for, attending to, thinking about, and remembering these differences, we tend to overestimate their magnitude and frequency, and thus end up thinking of people as more varied than they actually are.

Our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates.

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.

To learn from our experience we must remember it, and for a variety of reasons, memory is a faithless friend. Practice and coaching get us out of our diapers and into our britches, but they are not enough to get us out of our presents and into our futures. What’s so ironic about this predicament is that the information we need to make accurate predictions of our emotional futures is right under our noses, but we don’t seem to recognize its aroma. It doesn’t always make sense to heed what people tell us when they communicate their beliefs about happiness, but it does make sense to observe how happy they are in different circumstances. 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.

Another way, or perhaps a method to combine with the surrogate method, is the Bernoulli method of estimating the probabilistic utility of each decision.

With a little detective work, a pencil, and a good eraser, we can usually estimate—at least roughly—the probability that a choice will give us what we desire.

Bernoulli’s brilliance lay not in his mathematics but in his psychology—in his realization that what we objectively get (wealth) is not the same as what we subjectively experience when we get it (utility). Wealth may be measured by counting dollars, but utility must be measured by counting how much goodness those dollars buy.2 Wealth doesn’t matter; utility does.

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