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Stumbling on Happiness - book Review

1 January 2016

Dr. Moria Levy

"Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert, a renowned psychology professor, offers profound insights into the inner workings of our brains. The central theme of the book revolves around our perpetual pursuit of future happiness, prompting us to ponder whether there exists a dependable method to guide our current behavior and decisions toward attaining this elusive state of contentment.

Gilbert's writing style in the book is characterized by wit, sometimes bordering on excess. Amidst the wealth of knowledge and information presented, the author occasionally downplays himself briefly, only to subsequently showcase his expertise. This imparts a distinctive flavor to the narrative.

The book can be classified as popular science, addressing a weighty subject matter with rigorous analytical tools yet presented in a light and engaging manner.

The book delves into the following key topics:

1. The concept of future happiness

2. Realism

3. Presentation

4. Rationalization

5. Suggestion: Predicting happiness

Throughout the book, Gilbert provides numerous research-based examples illuminating the cognitive biases and illusions of the human brain, often obstructing us from making sound decisions, both in general and concerning our future well-being. Readers may discern elements in these examples reminiscent of the works of other prominent authors in the field, such as Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely, and others.

In summary, "Stumbling on Happiness" is an instructive and highly recommended read.

The concept of future happiness

The most remarkable achievement of the human brain lies in its capacity to contemplate things that exist solely in the realm of imagination and to plan for the future. While animals can make predictions, their foresight is limited to the immediate, individual, and local context. In contrast, humans can envision a broader future in all its dimensions, deriving pleasure not only from the eventual experience itself but also from the anticipation of it. The joyous anticipation of a delectable meal or a cherished reunion exemplifies this.

Knowledge wields immense power, and our brains are naturally inclined to forecast the future to exert control over it—a tendency we instinctively relish. In the Hebrew language, the term "happiness" encompasses three interconnected dimensions: emotional happiness, denoting joy, pleasure, or contentment; evaluative happiness, indicating approval of someone's behavior in alignment with our standards; and moral happiness, representing a state of virtuous well-being, an aspirational way of life.

When planning for our future, our objectives invariably revolve around actions that promise happiness. This task seems straightforward, as we possess self-knowledge and should ostensibly understand what will bestow happiness upon us. However, reality proves far more complex. Our internal self-perception and broad generalizations about others (such as equating paralysis with unhappiness) often fail to capture the whole truth. Even if we grasp the essence of happiness, determining what genuinely makes us happy can be elusive, even experiencing it. Drawing from research, philosopher, and mathematician René Descartes asserted that we could only discern the experience itself but not its precise cause—for instance, whether our trembling on a bridge resulted from the bridge's height or a conversation with someone on that same bridge.

Forecasting our future emotions is even more challenging—predicting how events will impact our happiness and, more significantly, how our decisions today will shape our future contentment.

Several primary constraints impede our ability to predict future happiness:

1. The Influence of Adaptation: We tend to adapt to our circumstances over time, reducing the emotional impact of positive and adverse events.

2. Focusing Illusion: We often overemphasize the importance of specific factors when predicting future happiness, neglecting the role of other, equally significant variables.

3. Duration Neglect: We need to pay more attention to the duration of the emotional consequences of events, causing us to make flawed predictions about their lasting impact.

Given these limitations, accurately forecasting our future happiness remains complex and elusive.

Realism

Realism is "the belief that things exist in reality as they appear in thought" (p. 89). The initial challenge linked to predicting happiness arises from our inclination to fill in missing mental images, often mistakenly perceiving them as complete. While this assumption may prove inaccurate, we remain unaware of this fallacy, leading to an error in realism—believing that reality precisely aligns with our imagination.

The process of completing the mental picture can take one of two forms:

1. Detail Completion: When we retain memories, our brains store representations of reality, yet not every intricate detail. Exceptional events tend to leave a more profound impression than commonplace ones, resulting in a challenge when reconstructing the past with absolute precision. This challenge significantly influences our future emotions and subsequent decision-making. For instance, our assessment of the risk associated with traveling by car may be more influenced by the memory of an accident experience than by statistical safety data. The same principle applies to positive experiences.

2. Perception Completion: Our brains retain generalized concepts rather than exhaustive specifics. For example, we might remember seeing an eye but not the individual components such as the eyeball or retina. Similarly, our brains generalize other sensory inputs, such as hearing a word even if a consonant is missed due to a cough. Occasionally, reproducing these generalized perceptions can be challenging, owing to the principle of subtraction. This difficulty implies that, in practice, we preserve reality rather than our interpretation. This has advantages (such as efficient storage of vast information) and drawbacks. Recalling a performance can sometimes be erroneous, leading to flawed future decisions based on past experiences.

Studies have shown that the missing parts and their significance are more substantial than anticipated. We tend to equate our present with the past rather than considering possible outcomes. In this process, extreme events and distinctive traits take precedence over those that faithfully mirror reality. Our decisions reflect what our imagination recalls, often omitting aspects forgotten or missed from memory. We tend to favor generalized interpretations over detailed ones. Remarkably, this tendency to overlook details becomes more pronounced as the complexity of the decision increases.

Is this phenomenon inherently negative? The answer is both affirmative and negative. It's a limitation because decisions do not account for every detail. However, it's also less detrimental because the abundance of further information characterizing upcoming events often generates a sensation of virtual reality accompanied by emotions and excitement, which can cloud decision quality. In any case, comprehending reality based on the past proves challenging, leading to inaccuracies in predicting the future.

Presentation

Presentation is "the tendency of present experiences to shape our perceptions of the past and the future" (p. 125).

The second constraint associated with forecasting the future arises from our tendency to assume that the future will resemble the present, thinking that what is now will continue to be. If, when considering the past, we've encountered the challenge of completing details (see Realism Limitation), then when envisioning the future, we commence with imagination and construct all the details from scratch without a solid foundation. In this context, the scope for prediction expands significantly.

Several factors contribute to our inclination to believe that the future will mirror the past:

- Present Sensation: When contemplating the future, we are significantly influenced by our immediate emotions, often without even realizing it. We envision a future event stemming from a decision we will make, and our feelings immediately come into play. We tend to attribute these emotions to our imagination, but they are heavily influenced by our current mood, physical sensations, and the environmental factors surrounding us in the present. Filtering out these emotions and accurately attributing them to the future is challenging.

- Frequency and Variety: We perceive future pleasure and happiness as static, failing to recognize the impact of frequency and variety. Just because a particular experience brings us joy does not mean it will continue to do so indefinitely. Repetition can diminish our happiness, and to some extent, we crave variety. Without delving into the specifics, both high and low frequencies affect our need for diversity and the level of happiness derived from different foods, events, and situations.

- Reference Points: We are susceptible to the influence of reference points presented to us. For instance, consider how a vacation can seem much more enjoyable if it's announced that the price has been slashed in half compared to a week ago, even if we ultimately pay the same price without the announcement. Such reference points significantly impact our ability to make informed decisions regarding predictions of future happiness resulting from them.

In essence, these constraints align with the book's overarching theme: our struggle to accurately perceive reality based on the present, leading to errors in forecasting the future.

Rationalization

Realism is "the endeavor to render something logical or make it appear so" (p. 165).

The third constraint linked to predicting the future stems from our limited comprehension of the future:

1. Irrespective of our circumstances, we tend to rationalize them within our cognitive framework, a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

2. Future experiences inherently carry ambiguity, and our examination often focuses on only a fraction of the more prominent aspects. For instance, when contemplating Siamese twins, our initial impression might be harmful due to the challenges of sharing a single body. However, it's important to note that many Siamese twins choose not to be separated because of their profound mutual bond and support for one another, a connection they cherish.

3. Our assessment of the future tends to blend stark reality and extreme optimism or pessimism, often termed "mental leaps." These mental leaps are significant as they play a role in psychological resilience, but they can blur the line between reality and illusion. We often distort facts, seeking justifications in the vast sea of available information (the world indeed offers support for virtually any belief). Our perceptions and experiences, mainly those we've encountered, carry a more substantial bias than those we haven't. Unique and rare events leave a more lasting impact than commonplace ones. Consequently, reality remains susceptible to various distortions, leading to skewed decision-making in multiple directions.

In conclusion, our decisions regarding the future and our perception of the happiness we anticipate are frequently far removed from the reality that will unfold.

Suggestion: Predicting happiness

Given all the constraints surrounding the prediction of happiness, one might be inclined, as implied by the book's title, to believe that happiness can only be encountered, not forecasted. However, Gilbert does propose a method for gaining insights into future happiness, albeit with some unpredictability. This method is simple: we seek input from individuals who have already experienced what we aspire to, learning from their experiences. Unfortunately, many people refrain from doing so because they perceive themselves as unique. This perception stems from several reasons:

Firstly, our self-knowledge is inherently subjective, and we experience ourselves differently than others.

Secondly, despite belonging to various groups of individuals with similar traits or circumstances, we often need to pay more attention to the potential for differentiation and variance within these groups.

Thirdly, there's a general inclination to overestimate the uniqueness of individuals in society, including our own (a concept previously discussed in other contexts, i.e., "mental leaps").

The reality, however, is that we are less uniquely distinct than we might believe. We share more commonalities with others than we tend to acknowledge. If we can overcome this misperception, we can draw upon the decisions made by others and understand how those decisions have shaped their lives. Gilbert argues that this approach is superior to any other method of prediction.

I must admit that I don't entirely align with this recommendation.


Epilogue

I want to offer a personal viewpoint here as a book summary. I respectfully disagree with Gilbert's recommendation. His suggestion is less applicable in specific scenarios: one-time decisions (where comparisons are limited), decisions that yield relatively less happiness based on how they are made, and decisions contingent upon particular circumstances and contexts, which are challenging to analyze accurately and objectively. Allow me to elucidate my perspective further, focusing on the three pivotal decisions that, as Gilbert also asserts, are integral to every individual's life:

1. Choosing a life partner is personal and often a one-time decision. Only so many individuals have married the exact partner we wish to marry, making it difficult to determine the wisdom of such a choice. (It's worth noting that someone married and divorced multiple times would not be a representative case.)

2. Selecting a place of residence constitutes another crucial life decision. Despite the allure of factors like California's favorable climate over Ohio's, research reveals that happiness levels are similar in both locations. This pattern holds elsewhere, with rare exceptions. People tend to experience comparable happiness levels, and gathering data or asking around doesn't yield substantial insights.

3. The third critical decision pertains to our chosen career. While this is a significant choice, most professions can bring contentment to individuals. I recall a TED Radio show where a man who collected animal feces spoke passionately about his job's satisfaction. Is such a job suitable for everyone? It's uncertain. Did he have other options? By chance, he did. He had previously worked as a psychologist, but the toll of listening to people's hardships left him in despair. Today, he finds happiness in his unconventional profession. This highlights the uncertainty of what is suitable for whom and when. Analyzing the variables to make an optimal decision in advance remains an elusive pursuit.

So, where does this leave us? Should we revert to waiting to "encounter happiness"? Should we cease planning for our future and future happiness? I believe not. Instead, I propose that we plan to the best of our abilities, with two key additions to our approach:

a. Awareness of Limitations: Recognizing these limitations can help us better cope with them and enhance our decision-making.

b. Understanding When to Invest in Planning and When to Let Go: We must discern when the cost of making the wrong decision is not prohibitively high and when our ability to predict the right decision is not sufficiently high on the other.

In closing, I hope for a future filled with happiness for all. :-)


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