Stumbling on Happiness

My review of Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. This eminent Harvard psychologist’s book explains why you’re so bad at predicting what will make you happy.

In Gilbert’s own words:

“…this is not an instruction manual that will tell you anything useful about how to be happy. Those books are located in the self-help section two aisles over, and once you’ve bought one, done everything it says to do and found yourself miserable anyway, you can always come back here to understand why. Instead, this is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy.”

The book draws together threads from research literatures in psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics. (As an aside, the book makes for a great read alongside Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). Despite its strong grounding in science, the book is an easy and entertaining 230-page read.

The tricks our mind plays

The book thoroughly debunks two assumptions on which we base many decisions. First, that our memories provide an accurate record of what we did, and how we felt, in the past. Second, that our imagination is a reliable guide to how we will feel given certain events in the future.

Our mind plays tricks on us in myriad ways when we imagine the future. Whether in memory, current sensation or imagination, the mind does not create a complete and faithful picture. We like to think we can imagine a future state of life and then consider dispassionately whether we’ll enjoy it. In this way we can work out what we want to do in the future.

Unfortunately, the mind seems to work in the other direction. It is much more likely to use a subconscious heuristic, or ‘short-cut’, to decide whether we’ll like the future state and then fill in or leave out information in how we depict it to ourselves to reinforce that conclusion. That heuristic could be influenced by how we feel today (I’m feeling overwhelmed today, so I won’t want pressure tomorrow), by a theory that we have (success is important to happiness, so I won’t enjoy something that is low status), by something that has happened recently or frequently (I’ve met a lot of non-executive directors recently so that’s something I’d like to do), and so on. The idea that the imagination can work as a neutral tool of analysis is for the birds.

Too often when thinking about what we’ll do with our lives, our views of what we’ll enjoy are distorted by our self-image. Let’s suppose we like to think of ourselves as a successful person. In our minds we will have an image of what it is that successful people do. Our minds will tend to tell us that that’s what we want to do — to maintain our self-image as important — regardless of whether we will, in fact, enjoy it.

Successful professionals often place a high weight on what others think of us, and so our future life plans are often based on what we think we ought to do rather than what we will enjoy, and are generally unaware of this self-deception.

Habituation (hedonic adaptation)

At the same time, we underestimate the extent to which we’ll psychologically adapt to whatever has happened – so-called habituation or hedonic adaptation, supported by the stories we tell ourselves.

If our spouse leaves us, we tell ourselves we never liked them much anyway.

If we’re hugely successful in our career we overlook the aspect of joyous luck but rationalise it according to our abilities — it was only to be expected that we’d be successful. In fact, maybe we should’ve been more successful.

Happiness even seems to have a genetic component, leading us each to have a so-called set-point. The process of habituation takes us back towards our set-point quicker than we expect, dampening the impact of events on our happiness, both positive and negative. This isn’t to say that happiness isn’t affected by experiences and circumstances. It surely is, as is shown both by the large, cross-country differences in happiness but also the enduring impact on wellbeing of certain major life events. But the effects aren’t always what we expect or as big as we imagine.

Figuring out what to do when we’re so bad at prediction

So we face two big problems when imagining what we want from our lives:

  • We’re highly prone to just be wrong about what we’ll enjoy in future, leading to so-called miswanting.
  • But even when we’re right about what we’ll enjoy, we ignore the reality of habituation, which means the happiness boost we imagine is smaller and shorter in reality.

Miswanting and habituation show us we should be careful what we wish for. What we think we want often isn’t what we actually want. And we rapidly habituate to changes in our background state (where we live, the possessions we have, whether we’re married or not) and revert towards our set-point. These two factors mean that pinning all our hopes on a ‘big-bang’ change in the future may well lead to disappointment. They also explain why the happiness caused by material possessions is often short-lived. Instead, we’re often best off trying to focus on bringing experiences and relationships into our lives that improve our happiness today.

I get into the implications of all this in more detail in The Life Factor e-book. But Gilbert’s main suggestion is as follows. We’re more like other people than we think. Data about whether we’re happy right now is reasonably reliable. Therefore, the most reliable way to figure out whether we’re going to enjoy something is to ask someone else who’s already doing it whether they’re enjoying it now. This is likely to be more reliable than relying on our own predictions.

The conclusion has profound implications for how we go about figuring out want we want to do with our lives. It confronts the traditional advice ‘to have a dream’ with the discomforting fact that the dream may well be a fantasy. It emphasises the importance of making decisions based on data and experimentation.

I drew some important implications from Gilbert’s (and Kahneman’s) work when thinking about my own life:

  • Given the tricks the mind plays, I try to use real data wherever possible to ensure I’m accurately predicting what I’ll enjoy.
  • We’re more similar than we like to admit, so what makes most people happy is a good starting point (the research suggests health, autonomy, mastery, purpose, connection, and meaning).
  • Experimentation is vital to try out things we think we’ll enjoy, to see if we really do.
  • We can’t pin our hopes on a perfect dream future — we need to make the best of our lives today.

Stumbling on Happiness (Harper Perennial, 2007) is a highly recommended read for anyone open to the idea that they may not know themselves as well as they imagine.