Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Todd Gilbert – Book Summary

Date Read: 20 July 2020
My Rating: 9/10

The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. A deep dive into the psychology of happiness and what we think makes us happy (it is usually not what we think it is).
  2. Based on hundreds of studies and researches, a break down of our process of thinking about the past, present and future and how we related that to our emotions, relationships, behaviours and overall life.
  3. Don’t believe everything you remember, think and imagine – the brain only keep snippets of information and not the whole thing and it is probably leaving out or filling in lots of details (its making shit up).

Overall Thoughts

This is by far one of the best books I have read in many many years. So good in fact I read it twice in a year. It presents a plethora of good science and facts with a humorous undertone – which makes it very enjoyable. Although not a very easy read (lots of studies, dense facts, research etc) but it is a very informative book, so do take your time with it.

Who is this book for?

Short answer – Anyone who wants to be happy and understand happiness.

Long answer – Anyone who wants to understand our motivations, reasons, and predictability of happiness. Anyone curious to understand the process of happiness and most importantly what we think will make us happy versus what actually does make us happy. Anyone who wishes to understand the working of our brain and how we happiness relates to our memory of the past and our predictions of the future.

Impacts On My Life

  1. This book has made me realise how we perceive and think of happiness with our limited faculties of recalling the past, imagination and envisioning a future.
  2. It has given me a deeper understanding and a deeper look into my own thinking and my own understanding of the world, my world view and my understanding of my uniqueness and that of others.
  3. This book has shown me the fallacies of my own mind and shown me how we can fall prey to our own, well-intentioned, thinking.

Main Points & Ideas

  1. Happiness is subjective – it is an emotional state and cannot really be explained – everyone experiences happiness differently based on their unique experiences and cannot be compared. Even when we try to compare our own experiences it’s complicated because we are comparing our existing experience, that we’re currently having, with a memory of an experience and memories can often be very unreliable.
  2. Our brain does not hold memories in its entirety but keeps snippets and highlights. Hence our memories are not a good reliance on the past – most often we remember our feelings of the event. The brain is reweaving the experiences and not retrieving them. Information acquired after an event can alter the memory of the event. Our brains fill in and leave out details of past memories and future imaginations – that’s not the problem, the problem is we are not aware of it and the brain does it without consulting us!
  3. Once we have had an experience, we simply cannot set it aside, as we now base all future predictions, past memories and present, based on this (subjective) experience.
  4. People can often be wrong about their feelings. Our interpretations of our feelings are based on what we think caused them. For example, feeling pain and believing that we are feeling pain looks very much alike in our brains. Experience implies participation in an event and awareness implies observation. We all experience them but not everyone is aware that they are experiencing emotions.
  5. When we imagine how something will feel in the future – we imagine how it will feel now and then allow for a fact that now and later are different things. We base our predictions of the future on our present and we often make the mistake of thinking that the future will be similar to the present. Also, when we try to think of the past, about relationships, and about our feelings, political views, grief – we base our answers and memories on how we feel on the issue now. Hence we find it hard to feel good about an imagined future when we are too busy feeling bad about the actual present. Our brains have this Reality First policy.
  6. If we experience the world exactly how it is, then we would be too depressed, but if we experience it exactly how we want it to be then we would be too deluded. A healthy psychological immune system makes us feel good enough about the situation to deal with it and bad enough to do something about it. When an experience makes us feel sufficiently unhappy (above a certain threshold) the psychological immune systems kicks in and cooks facts and shifts the blame to offer us a positive (retrospective) view of the situation.
  7. Explanations allow us to understand the events and makes sense of how they can happen again. Unexplained events have a novelty – they strike us as unusual and rare which extends the extent of their emotional impact. When we cannot explain an event or something it lingers in our minds – it becomes a mystery or a conundrum. Our curious minds keep going back to them.
  8. We all feel we are unique and not like others and definitely not average. That is why we often don’t listen to others’ advise – I am unique hence my reasons for pursuing and doing something are unique too and someone else cannot feel what I am feeling so their advice and experience, although good, does not entirely apply to me.

Key Takeaways for Me

  1. Don’t compare your happiness with someone else – it’s all a subjective experience. It is all a you-know-what-I-mean feeling, which cannot be explained.
  2. More options and variety lead to ultimate dissatisfaction because we always keep comparing to the alternatives – keep choices and options to a bare minimum.
  3. I have learnt that negative events don’t affect us for as long or as hard as we think they will. Most people who experience major traumas (rape, physical assault, natural disasters) claim their lives have been enhanced by the experience.
  4. After making a decision don’t look at the alternatives. When we have the option to swap, change, exchange we have the tendency to do so or at least like what we picked less as we always keep comparing to the alternative. In choosing freedom we often choose less satisfaction. We often feel more regrets when we find out the alternative rather than when we don’t.

My Favourite Quotes

  • “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.”
  • “We think we are thinking outside the box but we don’t realise how big the box really is”
  • “Distorted views of reality are made possible by the fact that experiences are ambiguous—that is, they can be credibly viewed in many ways, some of which are more positive than others. To ensure that our views are credible, our brain accepts what our eye sees. To ensure that our views are positive, our eye looks for what our brain wants.”
  • “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 behaviour in the present is often designed to preclude it”
  • “We don’t just treasure our memories – we are our memories”
  • “Our memory for emotional episodes is overly influenced by unusual instances, closing moments, and theories about how we must have felt way back then”
  • “We not only pass our genes to make people who look like us but we also pass on our beliefs to make people who think like us”
  • “If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”
  • “Social structures (such as religions and castes) and physical structures (such as mountains and oceans) were the great dictators that determined how, where, and with whom people would spend their lives, which left most folks with little to decide for themselves.”
  • “Each one of us is trapped in a place, time or circumstance and our attempts to use our rational minds to transcend those boundaries are not effective.”
  • “Our perceptions are not the result of a physiological process by which our eyes somehow transmit an image of the world into our brains, but rather, they are the result of a psychological process that combines what our eyes see with what we already think, feel, know, want, and believe, and then uses this combination of sensory information and pre-existing knowledge to construct our perception of reality.” – Immanuel Kant