Self Help

Stumbling on Happiness - Daniel Gilbert

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Matheus Puppe

· 20 min read
  1. Our brains evolved primarily for survival, not accurate perception or judgment. This can lead us to mistakenly believe we feel or experience things that we do not actually feel or experience.

  2. Mental processes like perception, emotion, and cognition are extremely complex, yet we have the illusion that we have direct access to our own experiences. This illusion can lead us to oversimplify our own mental states and be inaccurate in our self-reports and judgments.

  3. There are cases where people’s claims about their own happiness and experiences seem questionable or implausible. For example, Ernest Shackleton claimed to be happy in circumstances that threatened his survival. This suggests we can be mistaken in our assessments of our own well-being.

  4. Simple acts like looking at your thumb involve many unconscious processes that we fail to appreciate. This demonstrates how we can lack insight into our own minds and be unaware of the complexity involved in our own experiences.

  5. Our brains prioritize responding quickly to potential threats over identifying those threats accurately. This can lead to confusion and errors in how we perceive and understand our own emotions. For example, arousal from fear can be misattributed to sexual attraction or other causes.

  6. We can have experiences without being aware of them, as in cases of blindsight or alexithymia. This shows that experience and awareness, though typically linked, are distinct. Awareness provides insight into our experiences but is not necessary for the experiences themselves. Experience without awareness demonstrates how we can be mistaken about what we are feeling or perceiving.

  7. If awareness became detached from experience, we could continue to act and respond without conscious insight or experience. This possibility highlights how experience depends on one set of mechanisms while awareness depends on another set. Experience does not require awareness, though the two typically operate together.

In summary, the key argument is that we have reasons to be skeptical about people’s reports and judgments regarding their own happiness, experiences, and mental states. Although we feel as though we have direct access to our own minds, in reality, mental processes are extremely complex. Our brains evolve to respond to threats, not provide an accurate understanding of ourselves. This can lead us to be mistaken, unaware, and confused about our own experiences, emotions, and well-being. While experience and awareness usually operate together, they depend on separate mechanisms and can become dissociated.

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• Our brains have limited capacity to store information but give us the illusion of vivid and complete memories by filling in missing details and fabricating information.

• Studies show we frequently misremember implied or later-acquired information, demonstrating our brains generate false details. For example, people often remember seeing “gist” words on a list that were not actually there.

• Our brains also fill in information for our perceptions, e.g. fabricating what is in our blind spots. We do not notice the blind spots because our brains quickly and unconsciously generate an educated guess about what is there.

• We continue to generate illusory information even when we know we are being misled. Our brains provide an inaccurate and incomplete record of our experiences through constant generation of false memories and perceptions. We mistake these fabrications for truth.

• Philosophers once believed in “realism” - that our senses provide an accurate view of the world. But Kant proposed “idealism” - that our perceptions are constructions combining sensations with our own knowledge and beliefs. Research shows we sometimes act as realists, assuming others share our perceptions.

• Children start as realists but develop into idealists, coming to understand people can have different perceptions. However, we never fully overcome realism, often mistaking our brain’s seamless constructions for reality even when we know better. Our brains remain “humbugs”.

• Experiments show our initial perceptions tend to be realistic. We first assume our subjective view represents objective reality. Only later do we consider other perspectives. Our perceptions involve an initial moment of realism, even as adults.

• Our brains actively interpret information to construct our experience of reality. These interpretations usually match reality so well we forget they are interpretations, feeling we perceive the world directly. But our brains are forging our experience. We both deceive ourselves and become the deceived.

• In summary, while we understand the idealist view that our perceptions are constructions and realize others may perceive differently, we never fully overcome the instinct to believe our own perceptions represent objective reality. Our brains remain somewhat untrustworthy, even as we recognize their tricks. We make mistakes assuming subjective perceptions match the real world.

The key ideas are:

  1. Our brains fabricate memories, fill in perceptions, and construct our experience of reality rather than recording it faithfully.

  2. We start as “realists” but develop into “idealists” who understand perceptions are subjective. Yet we remain prone to occasional realism, mistaking constructions for truth.

  3. Our brains deceive us so well we become the deceived, forgetting our experience is an interpretation rather than a direct view of the real world.

  4. We make errors assuming our subjective perceptions match objective reality, as our brains continue their tricks even when we peek behind the curtain.

  • Our brains constantly generate predictions about the immediate future, known as “nexting,” to allow us to function smoothly. But humans also developed the ability to think about and predict the more distant future.

  • This ability emerged as the human prefrontal cortex grew disproportionately over evolution. The prefrontal cortex is involved in complex cognition and envisioning future events.

  • Thinking about the distant future gave humans an advantage for planning, problem-solving, and adapting to change. But when we imagine the future, we tend to focus on a narrow, idealized mental image and fail to consider the range of possibilities or account for unknown details.

  • We notice and remember events that directly strike our senses but overlook absences and missing events. This tendency leads to errors in thinking and judgment. We need to make an effort to notice what our imagination omits to gain a complete and accurate view.

  • Studies show that describing a typical day helps people predict future emotions more accurately because they consider more of the factors that influence how they will feel, rather than just focusing on a tragic event itself. But we struggle to recognize that distant events, whether in space or time, necessarily appear less vivid and concrete.

  • The human frontal lobe grew disproportionately over evolution and is critical for functions like planning, imagining the future, and the emotions that go with envisioning the future, like anxiety. Damage to the frontal lobe can leave someone stuck in the present moment, unable to think about or plan for the future.

  • For most of human existence, living in the present moment was the norm. But the human frontal lobe allows us to mentally escape the present and think about the future. It gives us a sense of “later” and is essential for human foresight, planning, and emotions connected to imagining the future.

  • We spend a significant portion of our thinking time imagining the future, even though it hasn’t happened yet. We tend to imagine positive future scenarios, though we also imagine negative or worrisome scenarios at times. Imagining the future this way shapes our emotions, goals, and decision making.

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Imagining positive or negative futures causes us to feel emotions as if those events have already happened. This is because:

  1. Imagining good futures makes us feel optimistic and overestimate the likelihood of positive events. This optimism bias leads to faulty judgments.

  2. Imagining bad futures helps us feel in control and less fearful. It also motivates us to take action now to avoid those outcomes.

  3. Thinking about the future gives us a sense of control and agency over our lives. Our desire to predict and shape the future is primarily driven by a need for control, even if our predictions are often unrealistic or flawed.

While our desire for control is innate, our attempts to control the future and achieve happiness are frequently misguided because:

  1. We do not have a good understanding of what will make us happy in the future. Our predictions of future happiness are subjective and unreliable.

  2. Our imagination plays tricks on us, leading to illusions of foresight. We fill in details that won’t happen, fail to anticipate how much we’ll adapt, and overestimate our control.

  3. Specific assumptions we make about future happiness, like wealth, events, and circumstances determining happiness, are wrong. The author aims to show we do not steer towards happy futures as well as we think.

The author discusses three meanings of happiness:

  1. Emotional happiness: A subjective feeling, like perceiving the color yellow. Can only be pointed to or compared to similar feelings.

  2. Moral happiness: The happiness from living virtuously, doing good, and fulfilling one’s purpose. Focus of philosophers like Aristotle.

  3. Judgmental happiness: The belief one is happy, whether or not one is objectively happy. May or may not match actual experience.

The key point is these are different, though related, ideas we often equate with “happiness.” We should recognize happiness as inherently subjective and avoid dismissing others’ claims about their own happiness. Our beliefs about others’ happiness often say more about us. We should be humble in presuming to judge others’ happiness.

In summary:

  • Happiness refers to subjective feelings, not the means by which they’re achieved or judgments about what should make us happy.

  • While a virtuous life may be the admirable path to happiness, happiness itself is a feeling. We should avoid confusing the causes of happiness with the experience of happiness.

  • Determining whether two experiences of happiness feel the same is nearly impossible. Our memories of experiences are imperfect and constructed. The full richness of experience, including happiness, remains private.

  • Mental limitations like failures to perceive small differences or changes in our environment make comparing our own or others’ happiness difficult. For example, conjoined twins’ claims of happiness may seem doubtful due to their different experience, but there is no way to determine if their claims reflect their true feeling.

  • People have a tendency to assume the future will be similar to the present, which scientists call “presentism.” This leads to inaccurate predictions and judgments.

  • Our memories are also subject to presentism. We tend to misremember how we felt in the past by assuming we felt the way we do now. For example, when recalling how we felt about a past relationship or event, we project our current emotions onto the past.

  • Presentism is particularly strong when it comes to predicting our future feelings and desires. For example, when we’re full after a big meal, we have trouble imagining being hungry again in the future. Or after taking a trivia quiz, we have trouble imagining being curious to know the answers, even though we know we will be.

  • This is because imagination has limitations. Although we can imagine many fantastical scenarios, we struggle to imagine mental and emotional states that differ from our present one. Our imagination has a tendency to “fill in” the future based on the present.

  • In summary, presentism causes us to assume the future will be too much like the present and leads us to make inaccurate predictions and judgments as a result. Both memory and imagination are subject to this limitation.

  • People naturally conceptualize time spatially, often imagining the past as left or right and the future as the opposite. This metaphorical way of thinking about time can be misleading.

  • For sequential experiences over time, repetition and spacing, not variety, are the keys to maximizing pleasure. Variety is best reserved for simultaneous experiences in the present. Relying on the metaphor of time as space can lead to suboptimal decision making regarding how to maximize pleasure for experiences that unfold over time.

  • We do not always imagine time as a spatial dimension when we imagine future events. Our mental images usually include relevant details about people, places, actions but often lack a clear sense of when things are happening. Mental images are generally atemporal.

  • To figure out how we will feel about future events, we tend to imagine how we would feel if those things happened now and then adjust for the fact that now and later are different. This ‘flip-then-flop’ method of making judgments about the future can lead to errors.

• People’s judgments about future experiences are heavily influenced by how they currently feel. They start with their present state and insufficiently adjust for the fact that future circumstances may differ. We tend to expect the future to feel more like the present than it actually will.

• People respond more to relative changes and differences than to absolute levels of stimulation. For example, a 10-lb weight feels heavy at first but normal soon after; a 5-lb cut then feels substantial. We compare to what came before.

• We focus too much on the present and recent past when imagining the future. We start with what’s familiar—the present—and don’t adequately adjust for how the future may differ. This makes the future feel closer to now than is warranted.

• Our perceptions depend more on relative differences than absolute values. Adding 5 oz to 1 oz is noticeable; adding 5 oz to 10 lbs is not. We focus on relative magnitudes, not absolutes. For example, driving far to save $50 on a $100 radio but not a $50,000 car.

• Relative values shift based on comparisons. $2.89 coffee seems pricey if we compare to yesterday’s $1.89 price but cheap if we compare to buying two markers. We tend to make easy comparisons to the past rather than relevant comparisons to possibilities.

• Comparing options makes decisions hard and leads us to focus on unimportant distinctions. We may not buy a replacement $20 ticket but would if we simply lost $20. We should compare to current possibilities, not past prices.

• Retailers exploit our tendency to make relative and side-by-side comparisons by providing expensive options to make targets seem like bargains or adding options to make one seem more appealing. For example, stocking expensive wines to make less expensive ones seem cheap.

• We often rely on comparisons to the past or present options rather than considering relevant absolutes or all possibilities. This leads to poor judgment and manipulation. We should focus on current absolutes rather than be disproportionately swayed by past prices or particular options before us.

• Research shows we are more resilient to negative events than we expect. We overestimate how badly we’ll feel from events like job loss or illness and how long. This is because we have trouble imagining what such events are really like. We project current feelings onto the ambiguous future.

• Meaning and interpretation, not just physiology, drive all human cognition. We see stimuli faster when meaningful, like spotting “O”s faster in numbers and “zero” faster in letters. All senses, not just higher thought, are prone to exploit ambiguity.

• We seek gratifying interpretations of ambiguous events, not objective ones. Stimuli and life events can be interpreted in many ways, and we choose based on context, frequency, recency, and desire. We naturally interpret experiences to please ourselves.

• We evaluate things more positively after acquiring or committing to them (jobs, appliances, colleges) to reduce discomfort (psychological immune system). But we can’t delude ourselves completely and seek credibly positive views by “cooking the facts”— collecting, interpreting, and analyzing them to support desired conclusions. Our thinking balances reality and illusion.

  • People tend to seek out and believe information that confirms what they already think (confirmation bias). They ignore or discredit information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs.

  • We evaluate evidence through the lens of our beliefs and values. We hold evidence that challenges our views to a higher standard than evidence that confirms them. We rationalize this with plausible-sounding reasons without realizing our unconscious motivations.

  • We fail to foresee how our views might change to protect our sense of well-being. Our “psychological immune systems” help us feel better after distressing events in ways we don’t anticipate. We don’t realize our perspectives will shift to blame others or not blame ourselves.

  • We wrongly predict our future emotional responses. We expect to regret actions more than inactions and intense events more than mild ones. But in reality, inactions and intense events often trigger our psychological defenses, allowing us to feel better about them over time. We fail to foresee this effect.

  • Explanations change our experiences, for better and worse. Explaining distressing events helps us feel better about them. But explaining positive events reduces their positive impact. The act of explaining influences what we think and feel.

  • Our theories about ourselves, experiences, and decision making are often misguided. We don’t have as much self-insight as we presume. Psychological tendencies operate behind the scenes without our awareness to shape our thinking, feelings, and behavior.

In summary, we are not strictly rational agents. Unconscious psychological processes influence and alter our experiences, beliefs, and choices in ways we frequently fail to recognize or anticipate. We are left with an incomplete understanding of ourselves. But by becoming aware of these tendencies, we open the possibility of gaining greater self-insight and agency.

  • People tend to prefer experiences that seem more personally meaningful, even if objectively less pleasurable or satisfying. Explanations, even arbitrary ones, can reduce how meaningful and impactful events seem by making them appear more predictable and less personal.

  • We generally underestimate our ability to adapt to circumstances and generate satisfactory explanations for them. This leads us to overvalue options that provide more freedom and control. But in reality, we can “cook the facts” to perceive inescapable circumstances more positively.

  • Explanations serve the useful purpose of allowing us to make sense of events and gain insight into the world. But they also systematically change our perceptions and memories in ways that often reduce positive and negative emotional reactions. We fail to fully appreciate this psychological immune system when making choices.

  • Our minds focus on and remember the unusual, emotional, and impactful—not the routine or typical. This inclines us to draw inaccurate conclusions about our habits, tendencies, and past experiences. Though experience is supposed to breed wisdom, human memory is too imperfect and selective to always achieve this.

  • We cannot always trust our own recollections, even of internal experiences like emotions. We shape our memories to match expectations and beliefs. How we interpret and remember events depends strongly on endings, theories we hold, and a desire to see ourselves in a positive light. But when directly comparing options, we may make more rational judgments.

  • Beliefs spread between people not just because they are accurate or useful but because they have super-replicating properties, like being persuasive, appealing, or emotionally contagious. We readily accept some irrational or false beliefs and dismiss useful truths based on these non-rational factors. We must evaluate beliefs based on their actual merit, not just how compelling they are.

  • In summary, the human mind has a number of tendencies—focusing on the vivid, accepting persuasive explanations, shaping memories to match expectations, spreading irrational beliefs—that often lead us to make suboptimal judgments, learn imperfect lessons from experience, and rely on advice that feels compelling rather than is genuinely wise. But with effort and awareness, we can work to remedy these tendencies. The key is recognizing how our own psychology shapes our thoughts, choices, and recollections.

Beliefs and ideas can spread widely not because they are true or useful but because they have characteristics that promote their own transmission. For example, the belief that “money buys happiness” continues to spread despite evidence that it is largely inaccurate. This belief spreads because it motivates behaviors like constant accumulation and spending of money that fuel economic growth. Although this benefits “the economy,” it does little to increase happiness.

In summary, the spread of beliefs depends on whether they facilitate their own transmission, not on whether they are true or useful. Beliefs that spread widely are not necessarily those that serve our interests but those that propagate most successfully. Truth is just one factor among many determining a belief’s success.

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  • We have a tendency to overestimate how unhappy we will be after negative events and underestimate our ability to adapt to adversity. This is known as impact bias.

  • Research shows most people are resilient in the face of trauma or loss. While painful, people can adapt and even experience posttraumatic growth. Factors like social support, optimism, and finding meaning aid adaptation.

  • The process of adapting to difficult events often involves revising life priorities and values, closer relationships, and greater appreciation for life. This is called “paradise glossed.”

  • Examples of posttraumatic growth include former inmates, cancer survivors, and Paralympians who found benefits and meaning in adversity.

  • Complete recovery from loss is rare, but happiness levels often rebound. The ability to perceive benefits or growth is linked to better outcomes. Seeing life as shattered predicts worse outcomes.

  • A study found people overestimate the impact of both positive and negative life events on well-being. Happiness depends more on temperament and adaptability.

  • Research on resilience and adaptation shows adversity is normal in life. How people navigate adversity by revising priorities, finding meaning, and adapting is key to long-term well-being. The capacity for adaptation is a strength.

  • Summaries reviewed studies on how people adapt to health issues and disability. Key findings show most people experience hedonic adaptation, adjusting well-being and happiness to the “new normal.” While difficult, people can adapt to and find meaning in adversity.

In summary, both positive and negative life events tend to have less long-lasting impact on well-being than people expect. The capacity for resilience, meaning-making, and adaptation is a core human strength that allows most people to navigate adversity and even experience posttraumatic growth. Finding a sense of purpose or benefit in the face of trauma or loss is linked to better outcomes. Happiness depends more on a person’s innate temperament and adaptability than on life events alone.

The article examines how people exhibit systematic errors and inaccuracies in self-knowledge that lead to suboptimal judgments and decisions. Several key ideas include:

  1. People often rely on observations of others to determine how they themselves should think or act. But others’ behaviors are an imperfect guide and frequently lead people astray.

  2. Self-concepts are often idealized or inaccurate. People see themselves through rose-colored glasses and have limited insight into their own traits, abilities, and behaviors.

  3. The “above-average effect” causes people to overestimate themselves and underestimate others, leading to poor planning and problem-solving.

  4. The “Barnum effect” refers to people’s tendency to believe vague personality descriptions apply specifically to them. People seek out confirmatory information about themselves.

  5. The “actor-observer bias” leads people to attribute others’ actions to dispositional factors but attribute their own actions to situational factors. This causes harsher judgment of others.

  6. The “false consensus effect” causes people to perceive their views and behaviors as more common or normal than they are. This can promote unhealthy social dynamics.

  7. The need to feel unique motivates people to perceive themselves as distinctive from others, which can drive risky behavior.

  8. People are unable to accurately predict their own or others’ future feelings and behaviors. They rely on flawed intuitions and overestimate their own future happiness and life satisfaction.

  9. These biases generally cause people to feel superior to others and judge themselves too generously and others too critically. Overcoming these requires conscious effort and awareness.

In summary, the article outlines many cognitive and social biases that systematically distort self-knowledge and perceptions of others in self-serving ways. These biases have important implications for decision making, relationships, and psychological and physical well-being. Recognizing their influence is the first step to limiting their effects.

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