Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

10/10

This book is definitely worthy of its praise. Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert provides some of the most incredible insights on how we misjudge our own behavior in the future and even go as far as to misinterpret the past. There’s more depth in so many of these psychology books that I read that one simple review honestly doesn’t do them much justice, I highly recommend reading them yourselves. I sometimes wonder if even these concise explanations do them justice, since the books by the actual experts are better able to detail and explain the details far more clearly and effectively than I ever could. I’ve decided to take several critical portions to provide evidence of why this book is such a goldmine of information and should be purchased by any avid reader of human psychology.

This book comes in six parts and for the purposes of this review, I’ll also add my own personal feelings regarding each of the parts.

Gilbert begins the book in Part 1 about the lack of control and misunderstandings that we have on human behavior by explaining details about how we remember surprising events or beholding man-made wonders and how our brain recalls specific instances of a moment but not details between those moments. He goes on to detail the life of Phineas Gage. I had heard the tale before in other psychology books, but Gilbert goes into much greater detail and explains why this was fascinating to doctors and psychologists during it’s time. Phineas Gage was a foreman who had a pipe blow across his skull and through his brain. He survived the incident, but after being hospitalized and treated, he was never the same. His compassionate and cordial personality suddenly changed to fits of irritation, rudeness, and anger. After the accident, he would yell at people and generally treat everyone who knew him poorly. The case is often cited by psychologists because it’s demonstrable proof that we – as human beings – simply aren’t as knowledgeable about our behavior or as independently in control of our own behaviors as we’d like to believe ourselves to be. As a point of comparison, I recall New Atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris, in a debate about Heaven and a rewarding spiritual life, pointing out that people like the idea of seeing their grandma in Heaven for all eternity, but don’t seem to understand or even consider the fact that injuries to the brain can hurt your motor functions and even change your personality, yet people think they’ll be on some spiritual plane where their family is able to have full motor functions, consciousness, and hold the same set of personality traits when their brain is buried along with their physical bodies and has stopped functioning long ago. In the same sense, Phineas Gage’s life, and those like him, is irrevocable proof of the opposite. If your personality can so drastically change from physical damage to the brain – due to an accident of either chance or foul intent, it’s plainly unrealistic to believe you do have as much independence as you believe that you do or that your subconscious processes don’t influence your behavior. On the part of Phineas Gage, the parts of his brain that were damaged did influence calmness and compassion. It genuinely wasn’t his fault that he became what laypeople would chalk up as being an “asshole” to others.

Admittedly, I felt the book was going through several different parts without any coherent reason and felt it was sloppy. I took several months off reading it, because I had heard of Phineas Gage’s story before and I wasn’t sure if I was going to learn much of anything beyond what I had already read. The book did go into details of other studies covered, but upon closer examination after having finished reading, I realized I was being incredibly unfair. One such research material in another book, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, was – from what I recall – done by the researcher himself. Using it as reference isn’t a valid reason to put a book down, I had just felt bored by the prospect without just cause. I was happily proven wrong about my presumptions as I read further on and it did provide amazing insights on the subject matter. Looking back, Gilbert’s starting structure makes complete sense because of how the research material and explanations covers psychology, neuroscience, economics, and memory recall. Therefore, while the Part 1 seems a bit ridiculous, it’s actually not sloppy writing, but something that Gilbert had to place in Part 1 so that readers get a more complete understanding of the complex research and can learn from it. It simply wasn’t fair of me to judge the book on Part 1 alone and he had very good reasons for explaining and writing Part 1 in the manner that he did.

Part 2: Subjectivity begins explaining the various forms of happiness and how people routinely try to deceive themselves about what constitutes happiness by trying to find ways to ground the feeling by definition. It’s largely seen as an intuitive gut reaction; a “you-know-what-I-mean” feeling and definitions are problematic. Even if, for instance, people are dieting and we can reasonably refer to such people as unhappy while they’re dieting, it’s largely to increase future yields because people who diet are trying to make their lives more pleasant. Moreover, the worst conceit is virtue happiness which was first promoted by the Greeks and later the twist that Christian theologians had added of happiness not being a product, but a reward to be expected after death – i.e. death worship. Later theologians then asserted that the virtuous and pious life was itself fulfilling and happy, with the premise being that those who don’t walk the path of God were unhappy.

The intermixing usage of virtuous happiness and Christian theologians later defense that living for God made one happy led to some bizarre arguments that were simply indefensible. Philosophers and theologians alike, by muddling cause and consequences as Gilbert states, would argue that a pious believer being eaten alive by cannibals is happy while a Nazi war criminal basking in an Argentinean beach is not really happy. That’s because happiness is a word that is generally used to cite an experience, but not the actions that give rise to happiness. Gilbert goes on to further point out that we should admit when even astonishingly awful events make people happy. He asks the reader if it makes sense to say: “After a day spent killing his parents, Frank was happy”? Absolutely! We hope no such person exists, and we understand this Frank person is a horrible person, but if he says he’s happy and looks happy, is there any reason to doubt him?

Gilbert goes on to write: “Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions, and those actions can cause those feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively.” – it’s important to remember the nuance when we form an understanding of what happiness is and isn’t.

Can we distinguish the degree of happiness between people as a basis? Gilbert says we can’t tell and it’s because, even with side-by-side comparisons, we’re not having the same experiences at the same time. He points to research where two groups of people looked at a specific color of yellow paint with one group describing the yellow paint and the other being the “non-describer” group. They were then taken to a swathe of six different colored yellow paint and asked to pick the one they had just seen 30 seconds ago. The first interesting finding was that only 73 percent of those who hadn’t described the color could accurately select the color they had seen. The second, and shocking, finding was that only 33 percent of those who spent time to describe the color paint they had seen just 30 seconds ago were able to accurately identify the same color paint from the six different colors of yellow. Evidently, the describers verbal descriptions “overwrote” their memories. They didn’t remember the event that they had just experienced; they remembered what they said about what they experienced and their explanation wasn’t clear or precise enough to help them identify the same color painting 30 seconds later.

Gilbert points out that people simply don’t notice visual discontinuities due to their eyes jiggling every few seconds. In a study similar to the previous one, volunteers looked at text that LoOked LIKe tHis which alternated every few seconds to one that lOoked likE thIs every time their eyes jiggled away and the volunteers never noticed as they read the passages on the screen. In essence, and I’m paraphrasing now, our memories simply take snapshots of the most emotional parts of our experience with an event (such as going to a new diner), where we’ll remember the bad taste of the wine or the good taste of the food but not the before and after of how we arrived and left when nothing that affected us happened. We take these “snapshots” and reweave our memories of events. We’re not actually recalling; we’re fabricating memories based on the emotional snapshots of the experience that we’ve made. It’s why it’s hard to sometimes remember what year or what we did after a particular special memory like snapping photos at the Grand Canyon with our spouse/parents/children.

Moreover, we don’t seem to be aware when our gut reaction is simply giving us a false-positive. In a study where one set of volunteers were shown quiz-show questions, one group (quiz questions only) felt the questions were quite difficult. The other group (questions-and-answers) believed the questions were quite easy and believed they could have answered them had they never known the answers beforehand. Once the volunteers knew the answers, the questions felt simple (“Of course it was x – everyone knows that!”) and the volunteers (questions-and-answers) were no longer able to judge how difficult the questions actually were for those who didn’t share the knowledge of the answers. Gilbert mentions: “Studies such as these show that once we have an experience, we cannot simply set it aside and see the world as we would have seen it had the experience never happened.” and further says “Our experiences instantly become part of the lens through which we view our entire past, present, and future, and like any lens, they shape and distort what we see. This lens is not like a pair of spectacles that we can set on the nightstand when we find it convenient to do so but like a pair of contacts that are forever affixed to our eyeballs with superglue. Once we learn to read, we can never again see letters as mere inky squiggles. Once we learn about free jazz, we can never again hear Ornette Coleman’s saxophone as a source of noise. Once we learn that van Gogh was a mental patient, or that Ezra Pound was an anti-Semite, we can never again view their art in the same way.” (Stumbling on Happiness, pg. 49).

Gilbert points out that, as a result, we can be happy without knowing or having awareness of an experience that we’re missing in life. That conclusion genuinely shocked me. I had thought and believed the opposite for so long. Gilbert uses the examples of conjoined twins who have claimed to be happy and don’t wish to separate. We as a society may believe that they’re not truly happy because of the lack of independence, but how we gauge relative happiness and how they do is on different standards. They don’t know what it feels like to not have someone else always connected to them in life (even on personal matters like the bathroom), but that’s the point. Even if they were to agree to a separation and say they weren’t really happy before, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that they were right. They genuinely could have been happy as conjoined twins and their new experience simply gave them the opposite feeling when looking back on their lives. They may have genuinely been happier before the separation for reasons explained further on.

Chapter 3: Outside Looking In has Gilbert explaining why, despite the issues, the best indicator of a person’s emotional state is accepting their view. At the end of the day, only they can give us a measure of their personal happiness. Most deficits regarding this method can be cleaned-up by the Law of Large Numbers. Because using them as a basis for analysis is only a problem when we fail to recognize a glaring issue in the research study. Despite individuals having different subjective scales, the least flawed method to find the most accurate information is to understand the average of an experience.

Gilbert summarizes this point on page 70:

“The bottom line is this: The attentive person’s honest, real-time report is an imperfect approximation of her subjective experience, but it is the only game in town. When a fruit salad, a lover, or a jazz trio is just too imperfect for our tastes, we stop eating, kissing, and listening. But 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. Those subatomic particles that like to be everywhere at once seem to cancel one another’s behavior so that the large conglomerate of particles that we call cows, cars, and French Canadians stay exactly where we put them. By the same logic, the careful collection of a large number of experiential reports allows the imperfections of one to cancel out the imperfections of another. No individual’s report may be taken as an unimpeachable and perfectly calibrated index of his experience-not yours, not mine-but we can be confident that if we ask enough people the same question, the average answer will be a roughly accurate index of the average experience. The science of happiness requires that we play the odds, and thus the information it provides us is always at some risk of being wrong.” He essentially adds that if we wish to bet against it, then we need more of the same question to be answered by more respondents to prove otherwise. It’s the most credible way to measure happiness. We must know, after all, what religion, art, music, etc are good for. If not our personal happiness, then what would mattering to us even mean?

In the next chapter, In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye, Daniel Gilbert elaborates on how we store and use memory. This is explained in pages 78 – 79: “How do we cram the vast universe of our experience into the relatively small storage compartment between our ears? We do what Harpo did: We cheat. As you learned in the previous chapters, the elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory-at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase (“Dinner was disappointing”) or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating-not by actually retrieving-the bulk of the information that we experience as memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician’s audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.” Later on, Daniel writes in pages 79 – 80: “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. First, the act of remembering involved “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. Indeed, this phenomenon is so powerful that it happens even when we know someone is trying to trick us.” In essence, the meaning we give our feelings after an experience will be our interpretation of the event.

Later in the chapter, Gilbert details the issue of Realism within the human psyche. In this specific context, he means that we confuse our interpretation of the world for objective reality and that such a bias is instantaneous. In pages 88-89, in his own words, Gilbert elaborates: “According to this line of reasoning, 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. It does not go away forever, and it does not go away on occasion. Rather, it is brief, unarticulated, and rapidly unraveled, but it is always the first step in our perception of the world. We believe what we see, and then unbelieve it when we have to.
All of this suggests that the psychologist George Miller was right when he wrote, “The crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world.” The three-and-a-half-pound meat loaf between our ears is not a simple recording device but a remarkably smart computer that gathers information, makes shrewd judgments and even shrewder guesses, and offers us its best interpretation of the way things are. Because those interpretations are usually so good, because they usually bear such a striking resemblance to the world as it is actually constituted, we do not realize that we are seeing an interpretation. Instead, we feel as though we are sitting comfortably inside our heads, looking out through the clear glass windshield of our eyes, watching the world as it truly is. We tend to forget that our brains are talented forgers, weaving a tapestry of memory and perception whose detail is so compelling that its inauthenticity is rarely detected. In a sense, each of us is as counterfeiter who prints phony dollar bills and then happily accepts them for payment, unaware that he is both the perpetrator and victim of a well-orchestrated fraud.”

In a further chapter, The Hound of Silence, Gilbert specifies how we distort our own perceptions of future events by temporal distance. We confuse the vagueness of our thoughts on how an event will play out as realistic representations of that day. In pages 105 – 106, Gilbert explains:

“Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons. When we perceive a distant buffalo, our brains are aware of the fact that the buffalo looks smooth, vague, and lacking in detail because it is far away, and they do not mistakenly conclude that the buffalo itself is smooth and vague. But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook 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. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives? We all do this, of course. We agree to babysit the nephews and nieces next month, and we look forward to that obligation even as we jot it in our diary. Then, when it actually comes time to buy the Happy Meals, set up the Barbie playset, hide the bong, and ignore the fact that the NBA playoffs are on at one o’clock, we wonder what we were thinking when we said yes. Well, here’s what we were thinking: 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. Babysitting next month is “an act of love,” whereas babysitting right now is “an act of lunch,” and expressing affection is spiritually rewarding in a way that buying French fries simply isn’t.”

Gilbert explains later on that one simple trick can effectively manage this bias: think of the future event as if it was happening tomorrow instead of in the future. Doing so should aid you in figuring out all the mini-steps and requirements needed to act effectively for the event and provide more consideration for what you’ll be doing.

In further chapters, Gilbert goes onto explain prefeeling. Due to our bias for the present, we have a ubiquitous tendency to confuse our present emotions for how we’ll feel in the future. Prefeeling has some positives, Gilbert details a study in which people who used prefeeling to choose a poster instead of thinking over it for long were more satisfied with their choices than those who cogitated over the cost-benefits of how a particular poster would look with their apartment or house wall’s coloring. However, prefeeling has us “fill-in” the details of future events with our current emotional states and subconsciously bias us into believing that our present feelings of depression, happiness, or even boredom will continue in the future and even during future events that friends recommend to us – such as going to a party or concert or going to a new restaurant. We believe our current emotional state will remain the same regardless of the experience.

In the chapter Time Bombs, pages 145 – 146, Gilbert explains how our frame of reference – such as being a buyer and seller of a car – impact our feelings. He details the full effects of confusing the present moment for how we’ll feel in the future. He explains on page 147 in the Onward: “Because predictions about the future are made in the present, they are inevitably influenced by the present. The way we feel right now (“I’m so hungry”) and the way we think right now (“The big speakers sound better than the little ones”) exert an unusually strong influence on the way we think we’ll feel later. Because time is such a slippery concept, we tend to imagine the future as the present with a twist, thus our imagined tomorrows inevitably look like slightly twisted versions of today. The reality of the moment is so palpable and powerful that it holds imagination in a tight orbit from which it never fully escapes. Presentism occurs because we fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.”

In the following chapter, Paradise Glossed, Gilbert explains how we ascribe meaning to ambiguous experiences  and how our minds generally form a preference on what the ambiguous stimuli means to us. We infer these meanings from context, frequency, and recency and often prefer that the ambiguous stimuli mean one thing rather than another due to our desires, wishes, and needs. As such, our brain tends to exploit the ambiguity of a stimuli for such preferable interpretations of the world.

Analogous to our physical immune system, our brains provide a psychological immune system that interpret incredibly negative events in a positive way. Generally speaking, this psychological immune system interprets events in ways that feel preferable to us after an incredibly negative experience so that we may derive meaning from it. This is why incidents of people who have been wrongfully jailed for decades, extramarital affairs, and debilitating injuries like the permanent loss of motor functions is interpreted positively with people feeling happier with their lives – these events reach a critical threshold where our psychological immune systems try to rationalize our experiences in a positive way. That is not to say that these are delusions or that it’s wrongful behavior, Gilbert is simply explaining the psychological process that is going on. Sure, losing an appendage is objectively worse than having avoided such a loss, but that doesn’t make our rationalizations and self-interpretations of those events any less meaningful or valuable. Gilbert mentions we need both a mix of reality and illusion to keep us going everyday and our psychological immune system interprets ambiguous events in a positive way to protect our emotions. Gilbert mentions that we have a general preference to give more thorough examinations and critiques to evidence that we dislike than to evidence that we find favorable. Gilbert mentions that this is essentially subconsciously cooking the facts for our own favored conclusions. However, just as important as that, we must feel as if the evidence is a discovery and not merely a self-delusion. When the information feels like a genuine discovery, we feel that we’re being honest with ourselves. It doesn’t work when we are dishonestly accepting a lie when the evidence that we value overwhelmingly disproves us. We like believing that we’re being honest with ourselves in these new discoveries and not dishonestly lying to ourselves and we do that be interpreting facts for our benefit.

Gilbert further explains the foibles of our psychological immune systems in pages 178 – 180 of the chapter Immune to Reality:

“Ignorance of our psychological immune systems causes us to mispredict the circumstances under which we will blame ourselves. Who can forget the scene at the end of the 1942 film Casablanca in which Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are standing on the tarmac as she tries to decide whether to stay in Casablanca with the man she loves or board the plane and leave with her husband? Bogey turns to Bergman and says: “Inside we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon and for the rest of your life.”
This thin slice of melodrama is among the most memorable scenes in the history of cinema-not because it is particularly well acted or particularly well written but because most of us have stood on that same runway from time to time. Our most consequential choices-whether to marry, have children, buy a house, enter a profession, move abroad-are often shaped by how we imagine our future regrets (“Oh no, I forgot to have a baby!”). Regret is an emotion we feel when we blame ourselves for unfortunate outcomes that might have been prevented had we only behaved differently in the past, and because that emotion is decidedly unpleasant, our behavior in the present is often designed to preclude it. Indeed, most of us have elaborate theories about when and why people feel regret, and these theories allow us to avoid the experience. For instance, we expect to feel more regret when we learn about alternatives to our choices than when we don’t, when we accept bad advice than when we reject good advice, when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional, and when we fail by a narrow margin rather than by a wide margin.
But sometimes these theories are wrong. Consider this scenario. You own shares of Company A. During the past year you considered switching to stock in Company B but decided against it. You now find that you would have been better off by $1,200 if you had switched to the stock of Company B. You also owned shares in Company C. During the past year you switched to stock in Company D. You now find out that you’d have been better off by $1,200 if you kept your stock in Company C. Which error causes you more regret? Studies show that about nine out of ten people expect to feel more regret when they foolishly switch stocks than when they foolishly fail to switch stocks, because most people think they will regret foolish actions more than foolish inactions. But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. 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 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.
But 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. When our action causes us to accept a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes an axe murderer, we can console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience (“Collecting hatchets is not a healthy hobby”). But when our inaction causes us to reject a marriage proposal from someone who later becomes a movie star, we can’t console ourselves by thinking of all the things we learned from the experience because . . . well, there wasn’t one. The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune system can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice, we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward. As students of the silver screen recall, Bogart’s admonition about future regret led Bergman to board the plane and fly away with her husband. Had she stayed with Bogey in Casablanca, she would probably have felt just fine. Not right away, perhaps, but soon, and for the rest of her life.”

Further on, he explains the Inescapability Trigger on page 183:

“Intense suffering is one factor that can trigger our defenses and thus influence our experiences in ways we don’t anticipate. But there are others. For example, why do we forgive our siblings for behavior we would never tolerate in a friend? Why aren’t we disturbed when the president does something that would have kept us from voting for him had he done it before the election? Why do we overlook an employee’s chronic tardiness but refuse to hire a job seeker who is two minutes late for the interview? One possibility is that blood is thicker than water, flags were made to be rallied around, and first impressions matter most. But another possibility is that we are more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we’re stuck with than of the things we’re not. Friends come and go, and changing candidates is as easy as changing socks. But siblings and presidents are ours, for better or for worse, and there’s not much we can do about it once they’ve been born or elected.  When the experience we are having is not the experience we want to be having, our first reaction is to go out and have a different one, which is why we return unsatisfactory rental cars, check out of bad hotels, and stop hanging around with people who pick their noses in public. It is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience, which is why we love the clunker in the driveway, the shabby cabin that’s been in the family for years, and Uncle Sheldon despite his predilection for nasal spelunking. We find silver linings only when we must, which is why people experience an increase in happiness when genetic tests reveal that they don’t have a dangerous genetic defect, but not when the tests are inconclusive. We just can’t make the best of fate until it is inescapably, inevitably, and irrevocably ours.”

In essence: We’re more likely to do something and enjoy doing it when we limit our options and have no option than we would when given choices.

Gilbert goes on to further detail how unexplained events strike us as unusual and cause us to think about them more, thus a pleasant unusual experience is something we feel more joy in than an event we can explain away since we can stop thinking of them. Even in situations when an “explanation” doesn’t actually explain anything, this effect will happen since the event only needs to seem as though it was explained. By contrast, uncertainty can preserve and prolong happiness. When we don’t know why a person feels happy or angry at us – we question it more and why they felt that way and it’s a much more lasting impression.

Gilbert details in the chapter Once Bitten, about how our brains use facts and theories to make guesses on past events and the feelings we had of those past events. On page 206 – 208, in his own words:

“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. 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. Consider, for instance, how your theories about something-oh, say, how about gender?-might influence your recollection of past feelings. Most of us believe that men are less emotional than women (“She cried, he didn’t”), that men and women have different emotional reactions to similar events (“He was angry, she was sad”), and that women are particularly prone to negative emotions at particular points in their menstrual cycles (“She’s a bit irritable today, if you know what I mean”). As it turns out, there is little evidence for any of these beliefs-but that’s not the point. The point is that these beliefs are theories that can influence how we remember our own emotions. Consider:

  • In one study, volunteers were asked to remember how they had felt a few months earlier, and the male and female volunteers remembered feeling equally intense emotions. Another group of volunteers was asked to remember how they had felt a month earlier, but before doing so, they were asked to think a bit about gender. When volunteers were prompted to think about gender, female volunteers remembered feeling more intense emotion and male volunteers remembered feeling less intense emotion.
  • In one study, male and female volunteers became members of teams and played a game against an opposing team. Some volunteers immediately reported the emotions they had felt while playing the game, and others recalled their emotions a week later. Male and female volunteers did not differ in the kinds of emotions they reported. But a week later female volunteers recalled feeling more stereotypically feminine emotions (e.g., sympathy and guilt) and male volunteers recalled feeling more stereotypically masculine emotions (e.g., anger and pride).
  • In one study, female volunteers kept diaries and made daily ratings for their feelings for four to six weeks. These ratings revealed that women’s emotions did not vary with the phase of their menstrual cycles. However, when the women were later asked to reread the diary entry for a particular day and remember how they had been feeling, they remembered feeling more negative emotion on the days on which they were menstruating.

It seems that our theories about how people of our gender usually feel can influence our memory of how we actually felt. Gender is but one of many theories that have this power to alter our memories.”

In the following chapter, Reporting Live from Tomorrow, on pages 216 – 217, Gilbert details why certain beliefs gain popularity over others in a society.

“If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. As it turns out, there are several such properties that increase a belief’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy. When someone tells us where to find a parking space downtown or how to bake a cake at high altitude, we adopt that belief and pass it along because it helps us and our friends do the things we want to do, such as parking and baking. As one philosopher noted, “The faculty of communication would not gain ground in evolution unless it was by and large the faculty of transmitting true beliefs.” Accurate beliefs give us power, which makes it easy to understand why they are so readily transmitted from one mind to another.
It is a bit more difficult to understand why inaccurate beliefs are so readily transmitted from one mind to another-but they are. False beliefs, like bad genes, can and do become super-replicators, and a thought experiment illustrates how this can happen. Imagine a game that is played by two teams, each of which has a thousand players, each of whom is linked to teammates by a telephone. The object of the game is to get one’s team to share as many accurate beliefs as possible. When players receive a message that they believe to be accurate, they call a teammate and pass it along. When they receive a message that they believe to be inaccurate, they don’t. At the end of the game, the referee blows a whistle and awards each team a point for every accurate belief that the entire team shares and subtracts one point for every inaccurate belief the entire team shares. Now, consider a contest played one sunny day between called the Perfects (whose members always transmit accurate beliefs) and a team called the Imperfects (whose members occasionally transmit an inaccurate belief). We should expect the Perfects to win, right?
Not necessarily. In fact, there are some special circumstances under which the Imperfects will beat their pants off. For example, imagine what would happen if one of the Imperfect players sent the false message “Talking on the phone all day and night will ultimately make you very happy,” and imagine that other Imperfect players were gullible enough to believe it and pass it on. This message is inaccurate and thus will cost the Imperfects a point in the end. But it may have the compensatory effect of keeping more of the Imperfects on the telephone for more of the time, thus increasing the total number of accurate messages they transmit. Under the right circumstances, the costs of this inaccurate belief would be outweighed by its benefits, namely, that it led players to behave in ways that increased the odds that they would share other accurate beliefs. 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.” In the 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 propagate.
Some of our cultural wisdom about happiness looks suspiciously like a super-replicating false belief.”

Gilbert explains how we can use surrogates to understand our own emotional futures and why most people prefer to use imagination instead of the more useful tool of using other’s experiences as surrogates to know how we’ll feel in the future. Gilbert details why we have an aversion to this and the falsehoods we tell ourselves about uniqueness and the foibles of simply using imagination to think of a future experience that we have yet to experience:

On pages 224 – 225, 226-227, and 227-228, respectively. Gilbert details the shortcomings of our imagination:

“The idea sounds all too simple, and I suspect you have an objection to it that goes something like this: Yes, other people are probably right now experiencing the very things I am merely contemplating, but I can’t use other people’s experiences as proxies for my own because those other people are not me. Every human being is as unique as his or her fingerprints, so it won’t help me much to learn about how others feel in the situations that I’m facing. Unless these other people are my clones and have had all the same experiences I’ve had, their reactions and my reactions are bound to differ. I am a walking, talking idiosyncrasy, and thus I am better off basing my predictions on my somewhat fickle imagination than on the reports of people whose preferences, tastes, and emotional proclivities are so radically different from my own. If that’s your objection, then it is a good one-so good that it will take two steps to dismantle it. First let me prove to you that the experience of a single randomly selected individual can sometimes provide a better basis for predicting your future experience than your own imagination can. And then let me show you why you-and I-find this so difficult to believe.”

“No one can imagine every feature and consequence of a future event, hence we must consider some and fail to consider others. The problem is that the features and consequences we fail to consider are often quite important. You may recall the study in which college students were asked to imagine how they would feel a few days after their school’s football team played a game against its archrival. The results showed that students overestimated the duration of the game’s emotional impact because when they tried to imagine their future experience, they imagined their team winning (“The clock will hit zero, we’ll storm the field, everyone will cheer . . .”) but failed to imagine what they would be doing afterward (“And then I’ll go home and study for my final exams”). Because the students were focused on the game, they failed to imagine how events that happened after the game would influence their happiness. So what should they have done instead?
They should have abandoned imagination altogether.”

“Imagination’s second shortcoming is its tendency to project the present onto the future (which we explored in the section on presentism). 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. Anyone who has ever shopped on an empty stomach, vowed to quit smoking after stubbing out a cigarette, or proposed marriage while on shore leave knows that how we feel now can erroneously influence how we think we’ll feel later. As it turns out, surrogation can remedy this shortcoming too.”

“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 (which we explored in the section rationalization). 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 (“I’ll come to realize that this was an opportunity to quit retail sales and follow my true calling as a sculptor”).

On pages 229-232, Gilbert explains the issue with our incessant belief in uniqueness:

“Because if you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people. Science has given us a lot of facts about the average person, and one of the most reliable of these facts is that the average person doesn’t see herself as average. Most students see themselves as more intelligent than the average student, most business managers see themselves as more competent than the average business manager, and most football players see themselves as having better “football sense” than their teammates. Ninety percent of motorists consider themselves to be safer-than-average drivers, and 94 percent of college professors consider themselves to be better-than-average teachers. Ironically, this bias towards ourselves as better than average causes us to see ourselves as less biased than average too. As one research team concluded, “Most of us appear to believe that we are more athletic, intelligent, organized, ethical, logical, interesting, fair-minded, and healthy-not to mention more attractive-than the average person.”
This tendency to think of ourselves as better than others is not necessarily a manifestation of our unfettered narcissism but may instead be an instance of a more general tendency to think of ourselves as different from others-often for better but sometimes for worse. When people are asked about generosity, they claim to perform a greater number of generous acts than others do; but when they are asked about selfishness, they claim to perform a greater number of selfish acts than others do. When people are asked about their ability to perform an easy task, such as driving a car or riding a bike, they rate themselves as better than others; but when they are asked about their ability to perform a different task, such as juggling or playing chess, they rate themselves as worse than others. 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 instance, we tend to attribute other people’s choices to features of the chooser (“Phil picked this class because he’s one of those literary types”), but we tend to attribute our own choices to features of the options (“But I picked it because it was easier than economics”). We recognize that our decisions are influenced by social norms (“I was too embarrassed to raise my hand in class even though I was terribly confused”), but fail to recognize that others’ decisions were similarly influenced (“No one else raised a hand because no one else was as confused as I was”). We know that our choices sometimes reflect our aversions (“I voted for Kerry because I couldn’t stand Bush”), but we assume that other people’s choices reflect their appetites (“If Rebecca voted for Kerry, then she must have liked him”). 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. We all trust that behind those eyes and inside those skulls, our friends and neighbors are having subjective experiences very much like our own, but that trust is an article of faith and not the palpable, self-evident truth that our own subjective experiences constitute. There is a difference between making love and reading about it, and it is the same difference that distinguishes our knowledge of our own mental lives from our knowledge of everyone else’s. Because we know ourselves and others by such different means, we gather very different kinds and amounts of information. In every waking moment we monitor the steady stream of thoughts and feelings that run through our heads, but we only monitor other people’s words and deeds, and only when they are in our company. One reason why we seem so special, then, is that we learn about ourselves in such a special way.
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. We prize our unique identities, and 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. If you’ve ever shown up at a party and found someone else wearing exactly the same dress or necktie that you were wearing, then you know how unsettling it is to share the room with an unwanted twin whose presence temporarily diminishes your sense of individuality. Because we value our uniqueness, it isn’t surprising that we tend to overestimate it.
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. Let’s face it: All people are similar in some ways and different in others. The psychologists, biologists, economists, and sociologists who are searching for universal laws of human behavior naturally care about the similarities, but the rest of us care mainly about the differences. Social life involves selecting particular individuals to be our sexual partners, business partners, bowling partners, and more. That task requires that we focus on the things that distinguish one person from another and not on the things that all people share, which is why personal ads are much more likely to mention the advertiser’s love of ballet than his love of oxygen. A penchant for respiration explains a great deal about human behavior-for example, why people live on land, become ill at high altitudes, have lungs, resist suffocation, love trees, and so on. It surely explains more than does a person’s penchant for ballet. But it does nothing to distinguish one person from another, and thus for ordinary folks who are in the ordinary business of selecting others for commerce, conversation, or copulation, the penchant for air is stunningly irrelevant. Individual similarities are vast, but we don’t care much about them because they don’t help us do what we are here on earth to do, namely, distinguish Jack from Jill and Jill from Jennifer. As such, these 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. 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 this reliable method and rely instead on our imaginations, as flawed and fallible as they may be.”

A truly fascinating read. I cannot recommend it enough. Amazing work by an amazing writer and psychologist.

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One thought on “Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

  1. Anyway, I’m not sure to what extent I did emotionally hurt you all. Clearly, my actions did but I can’t know to what extent. But whatever the case, I wanted to cut ties forever. As such, although I’m unaware to what extent I hurt you all… nevertheless, I apologize for doing so. My behavior wasn’t really cordial and I did act arrogantly because I couldn’t stand comments I perceived as asinine. Nevertheless, you didn’t deserve to be talked down to or patronized by me. I’m sorry. With that being said, I’d like to ask you to simply leave me be, since I don’t and shouldn’t matter when posting on some blog that you yourselves view as not mattering anyway. There’s no point of further discourse to further exacerbate hostile feelings, intentions, and actions.

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