Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

I came across Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert some years ago while I browsed Sadie’s blog and I bookmarked the review because I knew there would be a time when I would need such a reading. The time came this August when I craved for some non-fiction and, after graduating last June, kept wondering how things change and how we are changed by them.


From GoodReads:

Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?• Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight? • Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want? • Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim; why can’t we remember one song while listening to another; and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?In this brilliant, witty, and accessible book, renowned Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes the foibles of imagination and illusions of foresight that cause each of us to misconceive our tomorrows and misestimate our satisfactions. Vividly bringing to life the latest scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, Gilbert reveals what scientists have discovered about the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there. With penetrating insight and sparkling prose, Gilbert explains why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.

One of the first things that needs to be said of this book is that it is NOT a self-help book. You will not find any how-tos or a list of tasks that promise to change your lifestyle. Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and makes it very clear from the very beginning that his is a scientific approach to happiness, a product of his many years researching human feelings regarding future events and our ability – or inability I’d rather say- to predict our future feelings. So, this book is full of experiments and the interpretation of the results of such experiments that exemplify Gilbert’s theories. But do not be afraid, because everything is clearly explained and results are repeated almost to a tiring extreme so that we can all understand the science of psychology.

Regarding the content and the structure I was more than happy with both. Gilbert’s prose is easy to read and follow and it is also full of jokes. He uses a structure in which you think the outcome of an experiment, but then he proves you wrong and you cannot believe you were wrong!  The book’s evolution smoothly guides your own reasonings about happiness and what to expect in the future.

But what I enjoyed the most is that the above-mentioned experiments become experiments to you too and by experiencing first-hand Gilbert’s theories, you can accept them and learn from them. One of the most basic and relatable is the following: We all know we should not go grocery shopping on an empty stomach because we will end up buying huge amounts of sugary treats. This is great if we want to make some healthy shopping. But what happens when it’s 2 a.m, we cannot sleep and we open every drawer in our kitchen looking for a treat? If we went shopping on an empty stomach, it is more than likely that our sleepless self will have no treat at 2 p.m because we were not dying for one at that moment. The conclusion is that fail to predict the future and the infinite possibilities we will face.

Directly linked to that same experiment, we also fail to predict how happy a treat at 2 a.m will make us. Sure, when our past, healthy, self went grocery shopping, she was thinking of keeping a healthy weight, improving her diet etc. and at the moment she thought such a decision will make her happier than a sugary treat. Now, tell this story to your current self vandalizing your kitchen at 2 a.m looking for a cookie and ask her how happy she is at the moment and how happy she is she did healthy grocery shopping that same afternoon. The answer is we are not happy at all. Actually, we would want to kill ourselves for the healthy, sensible beings we were at the mall, but that have nothing to do with the sleepless, sugar-craving person we are right now. This only proves our inability to predict future evens and how happy, sad, angry or frustrated they will make us. No matter how we think we will feel, we are wrong.

So, Stumbling on Happiness is a marvelous approach to the science of human feelings and it makes some great points on our inability to predict our futures – despite how we all love to plan and schedule – and our own belief that we are total masters of our future. So, to sum up: we do not know what will make us happy in the future, and it’s OK.



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