Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert

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This wasn’t at all the book I was expecting when I ordered it, but ended up being much more satisfying. I thought it was going to be some tract on how and why the brain feels happiness, and what we can do to make ourselves happier. Instead Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard, explains how the brain functions, and then shows why we consistently make the same types of mistakes in trying to find happiness.

Gilbert’s main thesis is that the reason we have so much trouble making ourselves happy is that we are taking action on behalf of a future version of ourselves. It turns out we are _terrible_ at predicting what that future self is going to want. Our brain has evolved with blind spots and shortcuts that make it impossible for us to predict the future, even our own future. Yet it leaves us believing in our predictions, unable to recognize those limitations.

One thing that made me happy was a chapter on “the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye”. Gilbert shows that our brains do not store all the raw details of our experience in memory – it stores a small set of key features. When recalling the experience, “our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating – not by actually retrieving – the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory” (he cites Daniel Schacter’s book Searching for Memory). This reweaving is very sensitive to the conditions of recall – it’s easy to influence how the reweaving takes place. Gilbert cites one study where subjects were shown a set of slides depicting a car accident where the car failed to yield at a yield sign. Half of the subjects were asked “Did another car pass the red car while it was stopped at the stop sign?”, and then were asked to select the slide they’d seen between one with the car at a yield sign and one at a stop sign. 80% of the subjects that had been asked the question pointed at the slide with the stop sign (90% of the control group answered correctly). It makes you wonder about eyewitness testimony, doesn’t it?

Another thing our brain is poor at is projecting into the future. Gilbert uses the analogy of looking at things that are far away – they are small, smooth, and lacking in detail. When we project more than a few days into the future, our brains see events with the same lack of details, but without the developed filters to remind us that the details are missing. So we imagine only fuzzy good things for the future event, and then when the day arrives, we are confronted with messy reality.

Our brain also does some sneaky stuff when we project how we will feel in the future. The analogy Gilbert uses is that when we imagine something (say, a penguin), we don’t get confused and actually start thinking there’s a penguin in the room with us. Our brains are well-trained to override our imagination with reality, and we know which is which. But when we project how we will feel in response to an imagined event, our present feelings will override our projected feelings without any such awareness of the override mechanism. The brain’s “Reality First” policy “that makes it difficult to imagine penguins when we are looking at ostriches also makes it difficult to imagine lust when we are feeling disgust, affection when we are feeling anger, or hunger when we are feeling full.” We project that we will feel in the future the same way we are feeling now.

I’ve definitely confronted this one in my personal experience. After a long day at work, I might get home and not want to do anything. If I haven’t made plans, I’ll sit at home and mope because I can’t think of anything I want to do. If I’ve made plans, though, I’ll go out and have fun – my brain was tricking me into thinking that nothing would make me feel good because I wasn’t feeling good at the time. So I particularly liked this insight because it gives me more ammunition to get myself moving when I’m feeling mopey in the future.

One last section that I really liked in the book was discussing how the brain exploits ambiguity to get the best possible result. “We ask whether facts allow us to believe our favored conclusions and whether they compel us to believe our disfavored conclusions. Not surprisingly, disfavored conclusions have a much tougher time meeting this more rigorous standard of proof.” Our brains focus on the aspects of our experience that make us happy. For instance, he cites one study where he asked a group of people to define what “talented” means. “Talented” is a fuzzy word, so it’s not surprising that there were a variety of definitions offered. Also not surprising is that each person defined “talented” in a way that included them as somebody that was “talented”. Exploit that ambiguity!

Gilbert says we can think of this as a

“psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness… A healthy psychological immune system strikes a balance that allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it… We need to be defended – not defenseless or defensive – and thus our minds naturally look for the best view of things while simultaneously insisting that those views stick reasonably closely to the facts.

This immune system kicks into gear when we have intensely unhappy feelings. We find ways to believe that we’re better off now that we’ve been dumped or lost our jobs, but not when we stub our toes or get in the wrong line at the grocery store. “The paradoxical consequence of this fact is that it is sometimes more difficult to achieve a positive view of a bad experience than of a very bad experience.”

It’s also triggered when the suffering is inescapable. For instance, we will accept far worse behavior in our families than we would with our friends, because we can’t choose our family. The immune system kicks in because “it is only when we cannot change the experience that we look for ways to change our view of the experience“.

I’ve now covered a total of about 10 pages out of this 260 page book. There’s lots of great stuff in here. I’m fascinated by the brain (I even split off and populated a new cognition category recently), and I’ve speculated before on some of the ways in which our brains fill in the blanks so these sorts of findings fascinate me. The brain is a complex thing, and reading a book like this which provides scientific backing to several of my wacky theories is gratifying.

However, it’s not a self-help book. It’s not going to teach you how to be happy. But it does provide an understanding of how the brain works and the things it’s doing beneath the surface. Knowing those tendencies can help one consciously compensate for them, like realizing that nothing will sound like fun when I’m feeling depressed so I have to just make myself go out. Because one of the things that makes us happy according to the book is feeling a sense of control, this book will make you happier by understanding your brain better and thus giving you more control over how it feels.

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