Stumbling on Happiness – Book Notes and Summary

One-sentence summary: Stumbling on Happiness explains why imagination and memory are flawed instruments for determining what will make us happy – and how to replace them with something better.

Rating: 10/10

Author: Daniel Gilbert

Date Completed: 2017

Tags: Psychology, Decision-Making, Memory, Imagination, Bias, Frameworks, Optionality

Hot take: You’ll never trust your brain again after reading this one – and you shouldn’t – but a dose of healthy paranoia and some critical insights from Stumbling on Happiness will improve your thinking for life.

Big Ideas

When imagining our futures, we consistently overestimate the probability of positive events.

  • We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. Gilbert estimates about one out of every eight hours of thinking is future-directed. “If you spent one out of every eight hours living in my state you would be required to pay taxes, which is to say that in some very real sense, each of us is a part-time resident of tomorrow.”
  • But here’s where the trouble comes in: researchers find that when people can easily imagine an event, they “overestimate the likelihood that it will actually occur.” Because we tend to imagine good things happening, we’re naturally prone to believing our futures will be better than they actually will be.
  • “For instance, American college students expect to live longer, stay married longer, and travel to Europe more often than average. They believe they are more likely to have a gifted child, to own their own home, and to appear in the newspaper, and less likely to have a heart attack, venereal disease, a drinking problem, an auto accident, a broken bone, or gum disease. Americans of all ages expect their futures to be an improvement on their presents.”
  • When something terrible happens to us, we’re humbled for a moment. Our expectations for the future briefly match a reality – the truth that the future could be better or worse than the present. Sadly, this understanding is short-lived, and we quickly pick up our optimism where we left off. Adversity can make us more optimistic about the future (e.g., cancer patients are more optimistic about their futures than their healthy counterparts).
  • Consciously making negative forecasts about the future is essential for two reasons: 
    • Imagining an adverse event can minimize its impact (e.g., the Stoic practice of premeditatio malorum). 
    • Thinking of negative futures in advance can motivate us to prevent them from happening. “We motivate employees, children, spouses, and pets to do the right thing by dramatizing the unpleasant consequences of their misbehaviors, and so too do we motivate ourselves by imagining the unpleasant tomorrows that await us should we decide to go light on the sunscreen and heavy on the eclairs.”
  • Strategic pessimism (or at least pragmatism) plays a significant role in improving our thinking. Maybe we shouldn’t drop that cynical friend or ignore the voice in the back of our heads that suggests our new spaghetti ice cream venture isn’t destined for wild success. 

Memory is far more fallible than we think.

  • Memory is one of our primary decision-making tools. Memories help us remember what we liked and disliked about the past so that we might seek or avoid certain types of futures. 
  • Unfortunately, memory is a cracked mirror. We think of memory like video footage, stored safely away until we need it again. In actuality, it’s highly compressed – we remember salient points, but not much more. The brain’s trick is filling in details around these memories to make it seem like we remember more than we do. It happens smoothly enough that we don’t know we’re filling in.
  • Information learned after an event also impacts your memory of it. Our memories aren’t set even once they’ve taken place. If you loved a restaurant and later learned they had rodents in the kitchen, you’d probably think less of the meal after the fact. 
  • Giving a verbal description of something can also overwrite the memory of the experience, so you can remember what you said you experienced rather than what you experienced.
  • “We tell a friend that we were disappointed with the house chardonnay at that trendy downtown bistro, or with the way the string quartet handled our beloved Bartok’s Fourth, but the fact is that we are unlikely to be recalling how the wine actually tasted or how the quartet actually sounded when we make this pronouncement. Rather, we are likely to be recalling that as we left the concert, we mentioned to our companion that both the wine and the music had a promising start and a poor finish.”
  • “People can be wrong in the present when they say they were wrong in the past.” Translation: you can be wrong in saying you didn’t know what happiness was until you had Carbone’s spicy rigatoni. 

Imagination is no better; our brains fill in and leave out critical details.

  • When it comes to imagination, we give those filled-in, altered-after-the-fact images the same credence we do in memories and perceptions. We assume they’re pretty much right and adjust from there. We don’t realize what we’re seeing is a construction.
  • “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.”
  • When we imagine the future, we envision a specific kind of thing. Suppose I asked you to visualize your next apartment. In that case, you might think about exposed brick and beautiful woodwork but fail to consider loud upstairs neighbors, street noise, or the occasional cockroach. The leaving out trick (assuming these negative things won’t happen) causes you to incorrectly weigh the decision.
  • “Just as we 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.”
  • “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’s 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.”
  • This has implications for every kind of decision we make about the future: where to live, with whom to spend our time, what jobs to do, and what activities to pursue. Imagination is not a sufficient basis on which to make big life decisions.

When we predict the future, we almost always err by thinking it will be too much like the present.

  • We do that by misremembering our pasts to believe we always felt the way we do now. Guy you’re dating turned out to be an excellent partner? “I always knew he had it in him.” Guy you’re dating turned out to be terrible? “I always knew he was no good.”
  • “Memory uses the filling-in trick, but imagination is the filling-in trick, and if the present lightly colors our remembered pasts, it thoroughly infuses our imagined futures. 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.”
  • For example: try picking out stuff at a grocery store when you’ve just eaten. You’ll never be able to buy enough food to satisfy your future self. That’s the problem with leftovers. The person who’s just eaten is the one doing the portioning of the remainder. “Oh, this could be three meals’ worth!” Yeah, screw you, man.
  • “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…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. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present.”

We’re pretty terrible at gauging the impact of events on our long-term happiness.

  • We tend to overestimate both the intensity and duration of impact from significant events in our lives – moving to a new city, losing a loved one, changing jobs, etc. Most things, unless they’re chronic or truly catastrophic (e.g., losing a child), have sway over our daily happiness for a shorter time than you’d think – maybe a couple of months. Maybe.
  • When people think about tragic events like losing a spouse, they overestimate how bad these things will make them feel and how long they’ll feel bad. 
  • “The…period following a tragic event has to contain something – that is, it must be filled with episodes and occurrences of some kind – and these episodes and occurrences must have some emotional consequences…And yet, not one person I know has ever imagined anything other than the single, awful event… When they imagine the future, there is a whole lot missing, and the things that are missing matter.”
  • We fear things like job loss, having to move apartments, breakups with partners, etc., because we’re projecting how we think we’ll feel about them in the future from how we feel about them now. When we get to that future, and those things have come to pass, we feel significantly better about them than we think we will. 
  • “As soon as our potential experience becomes our actual experience – as soon as we have a stake in its goodness – our brains get busy looking for ways to think about the experience that will allow us to appreciate it.”
  • Generally speaking, we’re pretty good at finding ways to feel good about bad things happening to us. “Getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me!” It isn’t a lie; it’s our brain cooking the truth to fit our situations.
  • We have “psychological immune systems” that kick in after traumatic experiences to massage the facts while staying relatively close to the truth. If we get too far out over our skis and cook the facts overtly, our brains will feel the snow job happening and make us feel bad. But suppose we feel like we arrived at our newfound positions organically. In that case, we tend to feel like it was a discovery process – “hey, I’m actually way happier without my incredible job!”

We regret the things we didn’t do because our psychological immune systems can’t concoct positive views of inaction.

  • Almost every big decision we make in life is guided in part by what we think we might regret in the future. But active mistakes (e.g., doing something that turns out poorly) are easiest to imagine. Thus we tend to avoid them, preferring inaction. This is precisely the wrong call. 
  • “Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret the things they did, which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.”
  • “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.”

The simple answer to making better decisions about the future: ask someone who’s experiencing what you’re considering.

  • We’re pretty bad at a lot of different parts of this equation, but: if you’re wondering about the potential outcome of a decision, just ask someone who’s currently doing what you’re considering.
  • Yet, we reject this out of hand. These people aren’t me! There’s no way that my unique experience could be captured by someone who isn’t me.
  • But it’s true. Asking a surrogate performs better in approximating the experience than using our imaginations or any other technique.
  • “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.”
  • Yet nobody goes for this advice. This is partially because we know our many peccadilloes, but also because we broadly think other people are more dissimilar than they are. We think about differences a lot to distinguish between people, so we tend to overestimate them.
  • “Our mythical belief in the variability and uniqueness of individuals is the main reason why we refuse to use others as surrogates. After all, surrogation is only useful when we can count on a surrogate to react to an event roughly as we would, and if we believe that people’s emotional reactions are more varied than they actually are, then surrogation will seem less useful to us than it actually is.

    The irony, of course, is that 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 the reliable method and rely instead on our own imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.”

Bits and Pieces

Control is central to happiness.

  • The feeling of control – whether real or not – is one of the most significant determinants of mental health. We want to steer the ship, even though it doesn’t necessarily matter where the ship is going.
  • “The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and 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. And occasionally dead.”
  • It ends up being a good thing that it doesn’t matter so much where the ship is going. Despite trying to steer it to the best possible locations, we tend to be very consistently wrong about where to go.
  • I took away one implication: even if you’re not sure where to go, it’s better to make choices and be wrong than to make none at all. 

Why commutes suck

  • Psychological immune systems protect us from the horrible feelings of big, bad life events. But there’s a threshold you have to meet to hit the point where we feel that the difficult or terrible experience was worth it.
  • For many things, that’s sufficient. You remember the terrible breakup (during which you felt awful) and clearly remember being despondent about it, but you fondly think back on it.
  • However, things like a commute, long work meetings, garden variety rejection from a friend or first date, etc. don’t rise to the level of these intense triggers of your psychological immune system and thus stings more than some of the big stuff. You can smart from little things much longer than big ones.
  • A merely bad experience can come with no redeeming properties – purposeless badness – while something big and horrific gets help from the psychological immune system to conjure a Grand Meaning.

We shouldn’t move to California.

  • “Most Americans can be classified as one of two types: those who live in California and are happy they do, and those who don’t live in California but believe they’d be happier if they did. Yet, research shows that Californians are actually no happier than anyone else – so why does everyone (including Californians) seem to believe they are? California has some of the most beautiful scenery and some of the best weather in the continental United States, and when non-Californians hear that magic word their imaginations instantly produce mental images of sunny beaches and giant redwood trees. But while Los Angeles has a better climate than Columbus, climate is just one of many things that determine a person’s happiness – and yet all those other things are missing from the mental image.”
  • “We think that Californians are happier than Ohioans because we imagine California with so few details – and we make no allowance for the fact that the details we are failing to imagine could drastically alter the conclusions we draw.”

Why you regret agreeing to things in advance

  • I often agree to go to a concert three months in advance at a hard to reach venue. “I love the band, so of course I’ll go!” But then, as the event approaches, I get pissed about having agreed to do it because getting there is a hassle, getting back will take forever, and I have work in the morning. 
  • Why is this? It comes down to a difference between the way we think about things that happened recently or will happen soon vs. ones in the distant past or future. We think about why distant events happened/will happen, but how upcoming or just passed events happen.
  • When I decide to go, I’m excited about the why piece – I should see the show because I like the band. When the day arises, I regret the how – that getting to and from the show will torch my entire evening and make me tired the next day.
  • When we do this, our brains ignore the fact that details vanish with “temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them.”
  • Example from the book: most people would rather receive $20 in a year than $19 in 364 days because they both look about the same distance from the present. But we’ll take $19 today over $20 tomorrow because the near-term feels different even though the dollar amounts and distance between payments is the same.
  • The near future seems far more detailed, making us more upset or excited when we imagine near-term stuff than faraway stuff.

Related books:

Thinking in Bets – Annie Duke

Optionality – Richard Meadows

Risk Savvy – Gerd Gigerenzer

You can get this book from the library for free. If you’d like to buy it instead, you can get a copy here.