I'm drafting this book review sitting by the water in one of
Auckland's regional parks. If you had asked me yesterday how happy
I would be to be sitting (as I am) under a grey sky that threatens
drizzle, and in a different park to our usual favourite haunt due
to a nasty northerly springing up, I would have rated my expected
happiness at about a 3. But here I am, and I would rate my
happiness easily at a 7. As it turns out, the air is warm, the kids
are having huge fun playing with a floating log, the passersby are
all friendly and cheerful, and I'm delighted to have discovered a
great little park with a historic homestead at its heart.
So why, yesterday, did I misjudge my future happiness today so
It turns out my misjudgement is nothing unusual for a regular
member of the homo sapiens species. Making mistakes in gauging what
will make us happy is endemic to the human condition, and this has
been proved time and again, not only in life but also the
But why do we get it so wrong? That's what Daniel Gilbert sets
out to unravel in
Stumbling on Happiness.
Dan the Man
Ah, Dan! Yes, I know that sounds a vaguely disrespectful way to
refer to this Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard
University, no less, but after a few minutes' reading this book
it's hard to imagine ever calling him Professor. And I
tell you this because one of the unexpected delights of this book
is Dan's humour. He had me laughing literally from the opening
words of the first page, with his Acknowledgements blurb:
This is the part of the book in which the author typically
claims that nobody writes a book by himself and then names all the
people who presumably wrote the book for him. It must be nice to
have friends like that.
I thought he might burn out - one witty joke and the rest of the
book mired in heavy psychospeak - but no. Within a few pages his
syntax made me think he was channelling Douglas Adams and his
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or more precisely, the
2005 remake of the movie of the book with Stephen Fry as the
narrator. Fellow fans, I swear you could read the whole book with
your mind's ear taking on Fry's resonant vowels.
The book ends with a final laugh in the form of a Q&A with
Dan. Needless to say it contains a few more pithy comments, such
Self help books help. They help by making their authors
What this book is not about
This book is not about interventions and practices that will
make you happy, neither those listed in the annals of
scientifically-researched positive psychology journals nor those
found in the more anecdotal self-help books. Note to self: read the
backcover blurb better. That would improve my predictive skills in
at least one area!
Who should read it?
I recommend you read it if you are:
- in the mood for a non-fiction book that will both educate and
- interested in how the human brain works in terms of memory and
- comtemplating a significant change in career or business that
you are sure will make you happier. The latter stages of this book
will help you make a more informed decision!
This book begins with an examination of the role of our
splendidly developed frontal lobes. Apparently, we can live without
them well enough but we can't deal with concepts like 'later'
without them: they confer on homo sapiens our unique ability to
think about the future, to plan and to worry.
Next the book moves on to examining the meaning of happiness. Of
all the book, this part dragged for me as Dan wrestled with a
concept he called 'emotional happiness' and explored whether people
have the same experience range for happiness and talk about that
range in comparable ways. Perhaps most striking here was the
argument that we should not judge others' happiness (or
unhappiness) by our own expectations of what we would feel in their
shoes because we're likely to be wrong. The rich aren't super-happy
and the quadriplegics aren't chronically depressed. This fits with
other readings in positive psychology: even people who have
suffered greatly tend to recover eventually to close to their
pre-loss level of happiness.
However, most of this book is about the 'stumbling' part of
Stumbling on Happiness.
There are three 'illusions of foresight' that our brains play on
us as we imagine the future, and all three are based on basic
principles of human psychology. The illusions are:
- Realism - our imagination works so quickly and quietly that we
believe its products when we really shouldn't. We also don't notice
at all when our imaginings miss out important details, as we'll see
- Presentism - our imagined future often looks very much like the
actual present because what is happening now weighs very
heavily on our minds. That's why, when we're stuffed with food, we
underestimate how much we will enjoy a big meal in 24 hours'
- Rationalisation - our imagination has a hard time foreseeing
how things will appear to us once they have happened. In
particular, really bad things don't look so bad when they arrive
because our psychological defences kick in ("getting fired will let
me pursue my true passion").
All of these illusions are explored many examples of research,
all referenced in the 30 page Notes section, as you'd expect of a
Harvard professor, and also explored with the aforesaid humour,
which you wouldn't expect.
Things to ponder
This book contains many interesting ideas and stories to ponder.
Two as a taster:
- Why do bad beliefs ie those that can cause us damage survive?
For example, why do we persist in believing money will buy
happiness, and thus keep running on our personal economic
treadmills? Because like some bad genes, some bad beliefs encourage
their own transmission - in other words, those who hold the belief
engage in the very activities that perpetuate it. Dan suggests that
believing wealth will bring happiness keeps the economy
flourishing, which supports a stable society, which serves as a
network for propagating the myth of wealth bringing happiness.
- What happens last is what we remember most, and it powerfully
influences how we feel about something - unless we are forced to
stop and think carefully. Thus Dan was certain he hated the film
Schindler's List and his wife was certain he had enjoyed
it when they had watched it years earlier. They watched it a second
time and Dan found he indeed enjoyed all the film and only hated
the closing sequence that showed commentary from real life
survivors who Schindler had helped. Those two final 'mawkish'
minutes had overwhelmed his positive experiences and left him
certain he hated the film. Only when forced to re-evaluate did he
observe the truth.
The missing details
Returning to where I started, why would Ihave misjudged my
happiness at the park so badly? To which of the three illusions
would I have fallen prey? As far as I can see, it would have been
mostly the realism issue.
Half of the problem with realism is that, as we look to an
event, whether forward in imagination or backward in memory, our
brains swiftly fill in any blanks - so swiftly we don't realise it
has done so. The implications for eye witness accounts in court are
pretty frightening. However, Dan, and other researchers and
thinkers before him, from Cicero to Bacon, reckon our brains'
inability to notice what is missing causes us even more
Why does it matter? Because as we envisage future events, the
details of those events that we don't imagine we simply
treat as if they were not going to happen. To apply this to my park
experience, if invited to imagine an unknown regional park under
grey skies, my brain, I'm sure, would have immediately reminded me
of a 1996 flooded campsite with a young baby. And next I think I
would have imagined trudging round a strange place, hunting to find
a half ways decent picnic spot with everyone getting grumpier and
grumpier. I would never have imagined the details of a wonderful
old homestead, a great view, a playtime log, and a warm, if
overcast, day. If I had, I would no doubt have rated my chances of
happiness much higher. The human brain, alas, is not at all
well-wired to notice missing details and so it puts too much
emphasis on the details it does observe and remember.
The solution to imagination's shortcomings?
In the last part of the book, Dan has a simple remedy for
imagination's various failings. He says it's one "that you will
almost certainly not accept." I've read it and I fear he's right,
even though it makes excellent sense.
And no, I'm not going to tell you what he advises, you'll have
to get your own copy to find out!
I think the last words should go to the author Dan Gilbert
reminded me of - Douglas Adams. Here are Adams' opening words of
Hitchhiker's Guide. They sum up the realism illusion so
It's an important and popular fact that things are not always
what they seem.