7 Top Takeaways From Daniel Gilbert's Bestselling Book, Stumbling On Happiness

By Joanna Smykowski

Updated December 17, 2018

Reviewer Deborah Horton

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Daniel Gilbert's bestselling book, Stumbling on Happiness, is a witty and entertaining exploration of people and their relationship with happiness - a challenging task, considering that not only is it difficult to achieve happiness, but it's even more difficult to define and describe it.

And although Gilbert is a distinguished Harvard psychology professor, who has won numerous awards for both his teaching and his research, don't let this book intimidate you. Gilbert's approach is both accessible and laughs out loud funny.

If you're curious about happiness and psychology, there's a good chance you'll enjoy Stumbling on Happiness. And if you're on the fence, here are seven top takeaways from this fantastic book.

  1. Humans Are The Only Animals That Think About The Future

According to Gilbert, psychologists need to write The Sentence: "The human being is the only animal that…" at least once in their professional career. It's an unspoken vow all psychologists take, and how they finish The Sentence can either make or break their career.

Gilbert begins Stumbling on Happiness by taking a stab at The Sentence. How does his end?

Gilbert writes, "The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future." (4) This is the launch pad for a humorous study of people, and how we think about happiness. One could even argue that this book challenges what we think we know about happiness.

As it turns out, our ability to think about the future has a big impact on how we think about happiness, too.

And even though the human brain is capable of a great many feats, including seeing and remembering something like the Great Pyramid of Giza, what's even more remarkable and singular to humans is their ability to imagine. According to Gilbert, the ability to imagine is the brain's greatest achievement.

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He explains that "To imagine is to experience the world as it isn't and has never been, but as it might be. The greatest achievement of the human brain is its ability to imagine objects and episodes that do not exist in the realm of the real, and it is this ability that allows us to think about the future." (5)

But our brains don't just imagine, or "make future" idly and wildly. Instead, our brains imagine the future by making simple predictions about it.

How do we make predictions? We predict what could happen next by tapping into what we already know and what we've already learned through experience.

Then we take this knowledge and create expectations for our future. It's something we do without realizing it, and something Gilbert refers to as "nexting." (6)

We are always nexting, which is why when something unexpected, unplanned, or out-of-the-ordinary pops up; we are surprised, shocked or any number of things.

But why do we think about the future so much? Gilbert claims that it's for one very simple reason: it's pleasurable. And he shares that studies back him up. "When people daydream about the future, they tend to imagine themselves achieving and succeeding rather than fumbling or failing." (17)

However, imagining the future isn't always fun and games. After all, sometimes we worry and feel afraid when our brain is "nexting." But this also serves two important purposes.

First off, we think that when we plan for disaster, the disaster won't be as bad when it happens. Secondly, when we anticipate problems, we can take precautions to both prevent and avoid them altogether.

And this proactive "nexting" might not fill our heads with happy daydreams, but it does give us a sense of control that we humans find so satisfying. And so, we think about the future quite a lot. But as we'll learn, our projections about the future and how happy we'll be when we get there aren't always very accurate.

  1. It's Difficult To Measure Happiness, But Not Impossible

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Happiness might not be as easy to measure as the rice you're cooking for dinner tonight, and Gilbert acknowledges as much. He agrees with the majority of scientists that "if a thing cannot be measured, then it cannot be studied scientifically." (64)

But how do you measure happiness? After all, it's "a feeling, an experience, a subjective state, and thus it has no objective referent in the physical world." So, how does Gilbert reconcile something like happiness and scientific inquiry?

Aren't they at odds with each other?

Well, according to Gilbert, science already has a pretty reliable source to measure when it comes to happiness: the people who report being happy.

After all, this is honest, real-time reporting, and the only real starting point because who else can say when a person is happy but the individual herself, experiencing happiness?

It's only when subjects report feeling happy that scientists can then examine physiological measurements, like muscle movement and cerebral blood flow, and make any sense out of them.

So, while happiness is subjective, a feeling and an emotional experience, it's still something experienced by someone, and that someone is the best place to start when it comes to measuring and talking about happiness in scientific terms.

Another way scientists can get around happiness's objectivity is with something called the "law of large numbers." This law states that the sheer and vast amount of data starts to weed out inaccurate data.

As Gilbert explains, "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." (70)

Therefore, by examining thousands of people and their experiences of happiness, Gilbert believes it's possible for science to measure at least some aspects of this subjective experience.

  1. Imagination Is Fun, But It Has Its Shortcomings

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Even though we can report when we feel happy, that doesn't mean we're always very accurate about future happiness. The truth is, imagination is fun, but it's not perfect. In fact, Gilbert describes three shortcomings inherent in imagination.

Here they are:

  • Imagination adds and subtracts details, and we don't see that essential details are either made up or missing altogether.
  • When it comes to past or future events, what we imagine tends to be more similar to the present than those events were, or will be.
  • The imagination doesn't take into account that we end up feeling differently once the imagined future occurs.

To explain and clarify these three shortcomings of the imagination, Gilbert introduces several studies, all of which show how the human brain is very good at filling in the blanks with details to create a comprehensive image for ourselves.

Gilbert calls on the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and his theory of idealism, to show how this works. Back in the 18th century, Kant said, "The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise." (85)

And if you're scratching your head at that, here's what it means in a nutshell.

Gilbert explains Kant's idealism by saying that we use both our physical senses and our mind together to create whatever it is that we sense.

As Gilbert said, "Our perceptions are the result of a psychological process the combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and preexisting knowledge to construct our perception of reality." (85)

We are so determined to fill in the blanks that our imagination happily fills them in with details that are neither flawless nor perfect, which explains those three shortcomings we covered above.

This is why, when we imagine being happy tomorrow, or in a week, or even in years to come, our imagination may come up with a beautiful picture. But it might not be an accurate depiction of what tomorrow, next week and years ahead will look like, or how we'll feel when it arrives.

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  1. No One Knows How Other People Feel And Experience Happiness

It's hard - but not impossible - to measure happiness. But it's hard - if not impossible - to compare happiness. That's because no one knows what happiness feels like for anyone else but themselves. Click this link betterhelp.com/start for any support or assistance that you may need concerning happiness.

Think about it this way: we observe people in dire conditions, who report being happy, and we say, "Nonsense! How can they be happy? They must not know what happiness feels like."

However, as Gilbert goes on to explain, this "not knowing" is actually what allows people to be happy with what they have because they are not comparing it with what they don't have.

What's more, it's impossible for any of us to experience one thing, without bringing to it all of our cumulative past experiences. Gilbert says that "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." (49)

Therefore, it's impossible to compare your experience of happiness with another person's "happy" because you both have different lenses through which you see the world.

  1. The Future We Imagine Is Almost Always Way Too Smooth

Have you ever happily and willingly made plans to babysit your nieces or nephews several weeks in advance, only to find that you became more and more reluctant to the whole idea as the day drew nearer?

This is a common experience for most of us, but why?

As Gilbert shares, "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." (105)

That's pretty remarkable, isn't it? Instead of just forgetting that there are details involved in a future event, we just think that future event is smooth sailing and easy breezy lemon peezy.

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That's because when we imagine the immediate future, i.e., tomorrow, we think in much greater detail. But if you imagine a random day next year, it will be varied, vague and comfortable. In short, it will be free of all the actual details, discomforts and the reality of the day itself.

The great irony is that people actually believe that these smooth future events are just as accurate as tomorrow, with all of its gritty details.

  1. Our Past Memories And Future Imaginations Are Actually Pretty Similar To The Present Moment

Gilbert discusses something he calls, "presentism," or "the tendency for current experience to influence one's views of the past and the future." (109)

You see, because we carry all of our accumulated experiences with us wherever we go, it's impossible to describe a future that is free of any of our subjective input.

For example, "When middle-aged people are asked to remember what they thought about premarital sex, how they felt about political issues, or how much alcohol they drank when they were in college, their memories are influenced by how they think, feel, and drink now." (105)

In short, it's very difficult to extract ourselves from what we now know and believe, to sneak back into our former self and speak objectively about how we felt then - without the experiences we gathered between then and now.

And the same applies to our future selves. We can try to imagine how happy we'll be if this or that thing happens. But the truth is, by the time that thing happens, how much will we have changed?

No one knows, but one thing's for sure: you're comparing how you feel in the future to how you would feel now if that thing happened.

But the future isn't now, and now isn't the future either. So, even though we imagine feeling good - and even better - next week, next month or next year than we do right now, we're only repeating the feelings we know of right now.

  1. Psychological Immune Systems Act As A Buffer When Traumatic Events happen: "Hey, That Wasn't So Bad After All!"

Do you get annoyed with people who see the world through rose-colored glasses? Gilbert makes a case for these individuals, saying "We may see the world through rose-colored glasses, but rose-colored glasses are neither opaque nor clear." (161)

And that's why they work. If our rosy glasses were opaque, we wouldn't be able to survive and function in the world. But if they're too clear, we would be overwhelmed with the world as it is.

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As Gilbert explained, "We cannot do without reality, and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these touch competitors negotiate." (162)

And that's where our psychological immune system comes in. It keeps our illusions and our realities in check. It's like a pair of rose-colored glasses that keeps us protected from the emotional shutdown, but not too comfortable that we're completely out of touch with reality.

It's a lot like the body's immune system, which protects us from illness. If our immunity is too low, we fall ill. If it's hyperactive, the body's immune system starts to attack the body.

And our psychological immune system is very similar. An unhealthy psychological immune system will say either "I'm perfect and everyone is against me" or "I'm a loser and I ought to be dead." (162)

However, somewhere in the middle is a healthy psychological immune system that helps us feel good enough so we can cope with life, but just uncomfortable enough that we're driven to improve our situation.

This is how the psychological immune system works in the present moment. But how does it impact the human brain - the only brain that thinks about the future?

You'll remember that we imagine negative events that haven't yet occurred, thinking that if we think about them ahead of time, we'll lessen their impact and weaken their blow. But we don't need to worry about unfortunate futuristic events.

That's because the psychological immune system transforms their meaning when they happen to us. (227) In fact, it's easier than we think to both rationalize loss, and to overcome it.

This means that we can stop worrying about bad things that might happen to us because even if they do occur, our psychological immune system is there to serve as a buffer and soften the blow.

Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness, is brimming with life-changing insights that will challenge current beliefs about happiness. These are just seven takeaways, but to glean more from this great psychological exploration on happiness, you'll want to read Gilbert's book yourself. Chances are, it will make you smile and rethink happiness.


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