Stumbling on Happiness

Daniel Gilbert
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Gilbert's message is that we're bad at remembering how we felt in the past, and also terrible at predicting how we will feel in the future. His advice — find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel.

We think about the future in a way that no other animal can, does, or ever has, and this simple, ubiquitous, ordinary act is a defining feature of our humanity.

Because most of us get so much more practice imagining good than bad events, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that good events will actually happen to us, which leads us to be unrealistically optimistic about our futures.

The feeling of control—whether real or illusory—is one of the wellsprings of mental health.


The word happiness is used to indicate at least three related things, which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness, and judgmental happiness.

Theories on Happiness Comparison

  • Language-squishing hypothesis — The language-squishing hypothesis suggests that when given a birthday cake, people feel exactly as you feel but talk about it differently.
  • Experience-stretching hypothesis — The experience-stretching hypothesis suggests that when given a birthday cake, people talk about their feelings the same way you do but feel something different.

Experience implies participation in an event, whereas awareness implies observation of an event. One gives us the sense of being engaged, whereas the other gives us the sense of being cognisant of that engagement.


The best way to understand the shortcomings 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).

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts

The Filing-in Trick

Without the filling-in trick you would have sketchy memories, an empty imagination, and a small black hole following you wherever you went.

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.

Even though we are aware of the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine.

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.

Research suggests that when people make predictions about their reactions to future events, they tend to neglect the fact that their brains have performed the filling-in trick as an integral part of the act of imagination.

The Hound of Silence

When we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting, we consider the negative attributes.

But just as we tend to treat the details of future events that we do imagine as though they were actually going to happen, 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.

Studies suggest that describing details of a future event will produce more accurate predictions when compared to those that don't consider the details of a future event.

When we think of events in the distant past or distant future we tend to think abstractly about why they happened or will happen, but when we think of events in the near past or near future we tend to think concretely about how they happened or will happen.


The Future Is Now

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

When people are prevented from feeling emotion in the present, they become temporarily unable to predict how they will feel in the future.

The brain considers the perception of reality to be its first and foremost duty, thus your request to borrow the visual cortex for a moment is expressly and summarily denied.

The emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in the world is called feeling; the emotional experience that results from a flow of information that originates in memory is called prefeeling; and mixing them up is one of the world’s most popular sports.

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.


We quickly begin to adapt to repeated experiences, they yield less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility,

  • Variety increases pleasure when consumption is rapid.
  • Variety reduces pleasure when consumption is slow.

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.

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.

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 recognise 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 recognise that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.


Paradise Glossed

Objective stimuli in the world create subjective stimuli in the mind, and it is these subjective stimuli to which people react.

One of the reasons why most of us think of ourselves as talented, friendly, wise, and fair-minded is that the human mind naturally exploits each word’s ambiguity for its own gratification.

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.

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.

When facts challenge our favoured conclusion, we scrutinise them more carefully and subject them to more rigorous analysis. The reverse is also true, we seek out information that confirms our preexisting beliefs (see Confirmation Bias).

Immune to Reality

For positive views to be credible, they must be based on facts that we believe we have come upon honestly. We accomplish this by unconsciously cooking the facts and then consciously consuming them.

Ignorance of our psychological immune systems causes us to mispredict the circumstances under which we will blame others, but it also causes us to mispredict the circumstances under which we will blame ourselves.

To be effective, a defensive system must respond to threats; but to be practical, it must respond only to threats that exceed some critical threshold—which means that threats that fall short of the critical threshold may have a destructive potential that belies their diminutive size.

The paradoxical consequence of this fact is that it is sometimes more difficult to achieve a positive view of a bad experience than of a very bad experience.

Intense suffering triggers the very processes that eradicate it, while mild suffering does not, and this counterintuitive fact can make it difficult for us to predict our emotional futures.

Studies show that the mere act of explaining an unpleasant event can help to defang it. For example, simply writing about a trauma.

Once we explain an event, we can fold it up like freshly washed laundry, put it away in memory’s drawer, and move on to the next one; but if an event defies explanation, it becomes a mystery or a conundrum, which generally refuse to stay in the back of our minds.


Once Bitten

We expect the next car, the next house, or the next promotion to make us happy even though the last ones didn’t and even though others keep telling us that the next ones won’t.

We naturally (but incorrectly) assume that things that come easily to mind are things we have frequently encountered (see Availability Bias).

  • The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.
  • This tendency to recall and rely on unusual instances is one of the reasons why we so often repeat mistakes.

We show a pronounced tendency to recall the items at the end of the series far better than the items at the beginning or in the middle (see Serial-Position effect).

The theories that lead us to predict that an event will make us happy (“If Bush wins, I’ll be elated”) also lead us to remember that it did (“When Bush won, I was elated”), thereby eliminating evidence of their own inaccuracy. This makes it unusually difficult for us to discover that our predictions were wrong.

  • We overestimate how happy we will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy we will be on Monday mornings, and we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again, despite their regular disconfirmation.
  • Our inability to recall how we really felt is one of the reasons why our wealth of experience so often turns out to be a poverty of riches.

Live from Tomorrow

Belief Transmission

Accurate beliefs give us power, which makes it easy to understand why they are so readily transmitted from one mind to another.

The lesson to be learned from this game is that inaccurate beliefs can prevail in the belief-transmission game if they somehow facilitate their own “means of transmission.” (see Crony Beliefs)

Economists and psychologists have spent decades studying the relation between wealth and happiness, and they have generally concluded that wealth increases human happiness when it lifts people out of abject poverty and into the middle class but that it does little to increase happiness thereafter.

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 explains why we believe some things about happiness that simply aren’t true. The joy of money is one example. The joy of children is another that for most of us hits a bit closer to home. Every human culture tells its members that having children will make them happy.


If you believe (as I do) that people can generally say how they are feeling at the moment they are asked, then one way to make predictions about our own emotional futures is to find someone who is having the experience we are contemplating and ask them how they feel.

Imagination has three shortcomings,

  • Its tendency to fill in and leave out without telling us (realism).
  • Its tendency to project the present onto the future (presentism).
  • Its failure to recognise that things will look different once they happen—in particular, that bad things will look a whole lot better (rationalisation).

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.

What makes us think we’re so darned special? Three things, at least.

  • Even if we aren’t special, the way we know ourselves is. We experience our own thoughts and feelings but must infer that other people are experiencing theirs.
  • We enjoy thinking of ourselves as special. Research shows that when people are made to feel too similar to others, their moods quickly sour and they try to distance and distinguish themselves in a variety of ways.
  • 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.

Because we can feel our own emotions but must infer the emotions of others by watching their faces and listening to their voices, we often have the impression that others don’t experience the same intensity of emotion that we do, which is why we expect others to recognise our feelings even when we can’t recognise theirs.

The irony, of course, is that surrogation is a cheap and effective way to predict one’s future emotions, but because we don’t realise 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.