Dan Gilbert headshot and book cover

Stumbling on Happiness

To get happier? Practice, coaching and surrogation (of people in current state not remembering)

Want to be happier? Put time into practice, welcome coaching and use “surrogation” or seeking advice from those currently in a similar situation to one you’ll soon be in.

That’s a big lesson from the 2006 book “Stumbling Upon Happiness” by psychologist Dan Gilbert. Broadly, the book argues that our ability to imagine future events both helps and hurts our advancement. With work, we can plan and make decisions that improve our lives. Also, though, we make inaccurate predictions about how we will feel in the future.

Another general theme I appreciated: We spend too little time being thankful for the good times and spend too much time worrying about the bad times. Changing that is the quickest path to greater levels of happiness.

Gilbert argues we use a “simulation system” to imagine and predict future events, but that system is flawed because it relies on past experiences and emotions. So, we often overestimate how certain future events will affect our happiness, and we also underestimate how quickly we will adapt to new circumstances.

Gilbert says our brains are wired to pursue happiness, but we don;’t know how to find it. Therefore, the book suggests that instead of trying to pursue happiness, we should focus on pursuing activities and experiences that align with our values and goals. He suggests that we should be more realistic about what makes us happy. Instead of chasing external circumstances, we should focus on positive relationships, finding purpose and practicing gratitude and mindfulness.

Below are my notes for future reference

  • You in the past, the present and the future really are different people, so trying to buy gifts or otherwise make a prediction about ourselves is as difficult as doing so for someone else
  • A frontal lobotomy works because it removes the part of our brain that causes anxiety and also happens to be a part of our brain that does planning — because thinking of the future is what gives us that stress. Without it we are in a “permanent present”
  • Cancer patients can be found more happy than others
  • Why imagine the worst? In a famous study, volunteers who received three big electric shocks at different time intervals were in more pain than those who received 20 shock box at the same intervals
  • “Forecasts whose purpose is not to predict the future so much just preclude it”
  • Author promotes a true reason we think control makes us happy and a reason we incorrectly think it’s true, which this book aims to dismiss. The true reason is that we do get happiness from exercising control
  • Control is important to us: a study shows that elderly residents in a nursing home who were in control of a house plant live longer than their peers who are told a staff member would control the house plant.
  • “Gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all”
  • The word happiness is used to indicate at least three related things, which we might roughly call emotional happiness, moral happiness and judgmental happiness
  • Philosophers call emotional happiness “irreducible,“ meaning there’s nothing we can compare it to.
  • Frank Zappa allegedly said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture
  • If we can stimulate the same pain of a pin prick by stimulating the brain, is that any different than stimulating the happiness in the brain rather than the experience of something causing that happiness?
  • Is happiness the end result, or a reward for doing a good thing? (The latter of which is a very Christian worldview)
  • “Happiness is a word that we generally used to indicate an experience and not the actions that give rise to it.…Happiness refers to feelings, virtue refers to actions and those actions can cause those feelings. But not necessarily and not exclusively.” 37
  • When we say we are “happy about” or “happy that,” we are using a different kind of happiness, a judgmental happiness saying that we understand or approve of a stance. That’s the morality or virtue of something
  • Solon: we can’t call anyone happy until they’re dead, to see if they reached potential
  • Gilbert’s Language-squishing hypothesis: “an impoverished experiential background causes language to be squished, as it were, so that the full range of verbal labels actually represents a very restricted range of experiences.”
  • Gilbert’s experience stretching hypothesis: “your experiential background can dramatically change your happiness levels. Once you know something exists and have experienced pleasure from it, then your definition of happiness changes compared to what it was in the past.”
  • There isn’t a view from nowhere, all happiness is subjective from that person
  • Evolution designed “what should I do” before “what is it” functions of our brain, so we react with fear before we identify what it is
  • We misinterpret the closely related terms “experience” and “awareness” (one from Latin “to try” and the other from Greek “to see”) but this distinction is what we mean by absent-mindedly doing something (experiencing but not aware) and what we mean by animal consciousness (they experience things but are not aware)
  • Science can only be done on that which can be measured
  • “Imperfect tools are a real pain, but they sure beat pounding nails with your teeth.” 65
  • Law of large numbers: example being that billions of neurons make consciousness an emergent property (two nerons not conscious, and billions make a human)
  • “Feelings don’t just matter — they are what mattering means“ 71
  • “What it would feel like if” is our time travel brain at work but it has blind spots
  • Imagination (future), memory (past) and perception (present)
  • The way memory works: to conserve space, we simplify (few translated phrases, few images) and then later we recreate but not retrieve the true memory
  • “Reweaving not retrieving” a memory
  • Wrote Immanuel Kant: “The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise. But that is no reason for confounding the contribution of either with that of the other; rather is it a strong reason for carefully separating and distinguishing the one from the other.”
  • As the author puts it “Perceptions are portraits, not photographs.” This is consensus of idealism and contrast with the realism that John Locke and others assumed the brain and mind were doing. Children essentially start as realists and only later as we understand to see from other peoples perspectives become idealist
  • When we think about the statistical likelihood of something happening, we often ignore the co-occurrences and co-absences that help explain the likelihood of, say, a pigeon pooping on your head
  • “When we are selecting, we consider the positive attributes of our alternatives, and when we are rejecting we consider the negative attributes.”
  • Old story of the Pygmy Kenne who left the dense jungle with an anthropologist and mistook a buffalo in the distance as an insect because he had not ever been able to look out over a far distance (194) Turnbull 1961 The Forest People
  • In long-term planning or in terms of making commitments for the long future, we think in terms of “why.” As a date or an event gets closer we begin to think of “how,” and this is why we can make commitments into the future that we later regret
  • “Babysitting next month is an act of love, whereas babysitting right now is an act of lunch”
  • “Most people would rather receive $20 in a year than $19 in 364 days because a one day delayed it takes place in the far future looks from here to be a minor convenience. On the other hand most people would rather receive $19 today than $20 tomorrow because a one day delay but takes place in the near future it looks from here to be in unbearable torment.”
  • Arthur C Clarke is behind what is called Clark’s First Law: “When a distinguished elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible he is very probably wrong.”
  • Researchers who called residents in cities with bad weather to ask how they felt about their lives got worse responses than those who are in cities with good weather
  • To understand time, we use space metaphors (ie English puts past at left; Arabic puts it to right and Mandarin puts it at bottom) 128
  • Psychologists call it “habituation” and economists call it “declining marginal utility”
  • We think in relative terms (weight, brightness, expenses, etc etc)
  • Sales advice: Introduce the high cost including money or time, and then offer a conciliatory lower priced option
  • “I will tend to compare the present with the past even when I ought to be comparing it with the possible.“ 140
  • It is much easier to remember the past and generate new possibilities, but each individual decision the most rational activist to decide is this the most effective use of time or money and not compared to what it cost in the past
  • Rather than deciding whether to spend money to help someone decide how to spend money, Allah TV show room
  • To make decisions about our future actions, we need to think us in the future and not the us in the present
  • We “exploit ambiguity” in words like “friendly” and “talented” by defining them in ways that flatter us
  • We have a psychological immune system: see enough truth to be credible but put ourselves in best light. (The brain uses facts but our eyes look for most flattering facts)
  • We like our politicians, horses and meals more after we decide on them than before
  • Monza, Italy 2004: outlawed round goldfish bowls to ensure they saw the world more clearly. What do we do for us?
  • We underestimate how much our brains find narratives to explain pain or trauma: For example, we underestimate how much more hurtful it is to be rejected by a jury than a judge in a hypothetical job interview, and we feel worse about a traumatic accident killing a loved one that we do an accident resulting from human negligence
  • “In the long run people of every age and every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did.”
  • Because small experiences don’t trigger our psychological defenses, the paradox is that it is sometimes more difficult to recover from a mildly 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.”
  • “We just can’t make the best of a fate until it is inescapably inevitably and irrevocably ours” 183
  • Freedom has its advantages but it also has its costs: a short window is a learning exercise but for big purchases and big decisions the commitment is what causes us to psychologically dig in
  • Writing or otherwise explaining a trauma or other difficult event helps us understand explain and learn from it
  • Smile Society Experiment with cards and coins on campus: less explanation of the cause for requesting donations was more effective
  • “We tend to remember the best of time sand the worst of times instead of the most likely of times“ 201
  • Research that tracks the happiness of George Bush and Al Gore voters, months after the decision people remembered being as happy as they had predicted they would be rather than how they actually were. “Apparently prospection‘s and retrospection’s can be in perfect agreement despite the fact that neither accurately describes our actual experience“
  • Communication is a kind of “vicarious observation”
  • “Evolutionarily, biology teaches us that anything that promotes its own “means of transmission “will be represented in increasing proportion to the population over time“
  • “The faculty of communication would not gain ground and evolution unless it was by a large the faculty of transmitting true beliefs “wrote one philosopher 216
  • Adam Smith wrote in 1776 “the desire for food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach; but the desire of the convenience is an ornaments of building, dress, equipage and household furniture, seems to have no limit or certain boundary. “… And what constitutes the real happiness of human life the poor are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who sons himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.”
  • “The fundamental needs of a vibrant economy in the fundamental needs of a happy individual or not necessarily the same.” 219
  • “The pleasure of wealth and greatness… Strike the imagination of something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it, “ wrote Adam Smith. “It is this deception which Rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind”
  • Like money, children are a lie we tell ourselves to continue the species: but look at chart below; they don’t make us happier on average
  • “The belief that children are a source of happiness becomes a part of our cultural wisdom simply because the opposite belief unravels the fabric of any society that holds it.” 222
  • “We must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are truth“
  • Passionate and compassionate love can be plotted in chart by “intensity,” and better understood, as depicted below
  • A series of studies show “the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feeling today.” Find people in our future-me state right now.
  • “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.”
  • But for difficult tasks we often rate ourselves as far below average
  • As the author clarifies “we don’t always see ourselves as superior but we almost always see ourselves as a unique”
  • “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 recognize our feelings even when we can’t recognize theirs” The author wrote this based on the 1995 research of Bar and Click titled “self other perception of the intensity of facial expressions of emotion” in the journal of personality and social psychology
  • This is why we don’t use surrogation as much as we logically should , so instead we use our imagination which is far more flawed than humility of someone to report their current feelings
  • To get happier? Practice, coaching and surrogation (of people in current state not remembering)
  • Dutch Daniel Beenoulli’s 1738 happiness equation: probability a decision will get us what we want times the utility of getting what we want, but this whole book is about how damn hard it is to project how much utility we will get from something in the future
  • The best decisions maximize our pleasure not (necessarily) our dollars

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